Friday, November 14, 2008

Hillary as Secretary of State?

I've been dismissing the rumors that Hillary might be named Secretary of State as more Hillary fans fantasizing about seeing her come just a smidgen closer to president. But apparently there might be a bit of fire behind the smoke.

There are pros and cons to Hillary as SoS. The cons are obvious: she's still a polarizing figure in the country at large. As chief diplomat, that might not matter all that much, because she will be spending a lot of time outside of the country, and her decisions won't have much of a clear, direct impact on the lives of people in this country. Also, many of her critics are on the right, and one of the Clinton administration's signature foreign policy accomplishments is Nafta, which many Republicans would be in favor of. In many respects, she's not a classic liberal on foreign policy - she did vote for the Iraq war. That would be a pro and a con; the left still isn't happy about that, but the right would see it as a positive. All in all, this is probably the least-polarizing job she could have in an Obama administration. It would certainly be less polarizing than putting her in charge of health care.

On the plus side, she's highly qualified. She certainly has met more foreign leaders than almost anyone else who is even in the running, possibly even more than Bill Richardson, who was ambassador to the UN. Even her most vocal critics respect her work ethic. Apart from policy issues, I think we can assume that she would do a good job. Given how she ran her campaign, I am not as much of a fan of her management abilities as I once was, but I'm sure she could actually manage Foggy Bottom.

The big question is, of course, the Big Dog, but I think Bill brings slightly more positives than negatives. Slightly. He already spends a huge amount of time traveling the world, so this would mesh well with his personal agenda. As to his personal personal agenda, there's always the risk of an "international incident." He is a private citizen these days, but his presence would also make many people nervous. Including me.

In the grandest sense, there are two issues. One, how well would she actually work with Obama? Would she be a good soldier, taking orders from someone much younger than her, or is there a risk of freelancing? She would clearly bring many of her own people, so State could be her own power base. That's a real risk, but, at the same time, as SoS, she ties her fate to Obama's. That one's hard to call. I don't think she is seriously thinking about running in 2016; it's possible, but she would be 77 at the end of a second term, and I think at some point she's going to be happy with what she has accomplished so far in life.

I think she would be a good soldier. I think Bill could be put to good use; he understands how closely tied his fate is with Obama's. And I think both Clintons are starting to respect Obama. I think they realize that they were beat by a great opponent. That may be wishful thinking on my part, but as great game players themselves, they recognize talent. Of course, it helps that Obama has been recruiting many Clinton people, so he has been paying them a certain degree of respect. It also helps that Obama is, in some respects, a better politician than Bill. He's just as smart as Bill, but more disciplined. I think Bill and Hillary enjoy the simple fact that Obama and his people like policy discussions. They can have geek fun in an Obama administration.

The second defining issue is that it would send a strong signal to the rest of the world that Obama is taking foreign policy very seriously, that he wants a strong presence representing him on the world stage. She would command attention, which could be useful in and of itself when visiting other countries.

At the end of the day, I come down against giving Hillary the post of Secretary of State. Apart from the baggage that she brings, and the potential for her own agenda, she does not represent change. Obama has hired many old Clinton hands, which is understandable simply because they tend to be the most experienced. The other names being considered are Sam Nunn, John Kerry, and Bill Richardson. Nunn would be a good choice, not least because he brings some geographic diversity, and he's eminently qualified, but he is somewhat conservative. John Kerry would be a safe choice, but not an inspired one. I'm leaning towards Richardson. He's extraordinarly qualified, he would bring some diversity, and he clearly has a passion for diplomacy. And he doesn't have a lot of baggage. Obama has made it clear that he doesn't like drama within his circle of advisors. Choosing Hillary as Secretary of State would be a serious challenge to that most excellent principle of governance.

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