11.15.08

Don’t Do It, Hillary!

The job of secretary of state is full of political hazards for the junior senator of New York.

Hillary Clinton has a pretty good life. Sure, she’s not president, but neither are most people. What she is is New York Senator for Life, heir to an illustrious tradition that runs from Aaron Burr to Robert Wagner to Daniel Patrick Moynihan. She’s already just about the most powerful person in the senate, and if she wants to formalize that status and become majority leader one of these years, she has an excellent chance. Who knows: She might even make it back to the White House. After all, Barack Obama’s meteoric rise is the exception: Most politicians—Johnson, Nixon, Reagan, Bush I—need to lose a presidential bid or two before they finally win. Hillary still has time. In eight years, she’ll be younger than Reagan was when he entered the White House, and younger than McCain is now. (Something that can’t be said for, say, Joe Biden).

Solving the Kashmir crisis might win you the Nobel Prize. But it won’t win many votes in Portsmouth.

All of which raises a question: Why on earth would she want to be secretary of state? First of all, the job is an awful launching pad for the White House. It’s true: long-serving senators don’t have a great track record of winning the presidency, but they’re practically shoo-ins compared to secretaries of state. The last former secretary of state to even seek the presidency was Alexander Haig in 1988, and his candidacy was a joke. To find a former secretary of state who actually won you have to go back 150 years, to James Buchanan. There are reasons for this. The job of secretary of state offers little opportunity to till the fields of American politics: to go to Jefferson-Jackson Day dinners in Sioux City or slip a little campaign money to the guy running for state senate in New Hampshire. It forces you to turn your energies away from domestic issues, which is what Americans usually vote on, and towards international questions that many find exotic and obscure. Solving the Kashmir crisis might win you the Nobel Prize. But it won’t win many votes in Portsmouth.

Besides, secretaries of state aren’t meant to be politically popular. They’re not supposed to burnish their approval ratings; they’re supposed to take bullets so presidents can burnish theirs (See Powell, Colin). A stint at Foggy Bottom isn’t likely to boost Hillary’s image, and once she left the position—probably after four years, if tradition is any guide—she would be politically homeless, without a job that keeps her in the national eye, and from which to launch a presidential bid.

Fine, you say, she doesn’t want to be president. Running the foreign policy of the world’s lone superpower is exciting enough. Except that secretaries of state don’t generally run American foreign policy anymore. They used to, in the first half of the last century, when giants with names like Root, Stimson, Hughes, Hull, Marshall, Acheson and Dulles roamed the executive branch. But since about 1960, a newer, feistier breed—the National Security Advisor—has changed all that. Located in the White House, and unencumbered by a big, slow bureaucracy, the need to regularly testify before Congress and the burdens of frequent foreign travel, NSC advisors often eat secretaries of state for breakfast: McGeorge Bundy vs. Dean Rusk; Henry Kissinger vs. William Rogers (that one was downright painful); Zbigniew Brzezinski vs. Cyrus Vance; Anthony Lake (and his influential deputy Sandy Berger) vs. Warren Christopher; Condoleezza Rice vs. Colin Powell. There are exceptions, of course, powerful secretaries of state like George Schultz or James Baker or Rice today. But it’s usually because the National Security Advisor isn’t in the job long enough to develop real clout (as under Reagan, who went through them like Kleenex) or because the secretary of state has an unusually intimate relationship with the prez, which isn’t the case here. Hillary is tough, smart and incredibly hard working, but as secretary of state, the bureaucratic deck would be stacked against her.

And it gets worse. Secretaries of state were struggling even before the vice presidency—historically a dish rag of a job—got a steroid injection. With Al Gore and Dick Cheney and now, almost certainly, Joseph Biden wielding real foreign policy muscle, decision-making is becoming even more centralized at the White House. NSC advisors pop into the Oval Office all day, often alone. Vice presidents, if they have the president’s trust, have tons of opportunities to whisper in his ear when no one else is around. Secretaries of state, by contrast, often only see the president in big, scripted meetings, where they have to compete for time with the director of CIA.

So forget whether Obama should want her. Hillary shouldn’t want it. If Barack pops the question, Hillary should suggest Colin Powell instead. He knows what a great gig secretary of state is.

Peter Beinart is a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.