I have to say that I was a little bit surprised by Hillary Clinton’s name coming up for Secretary of State. In particular, she’s never shown a particular interest in diplomacy or foreign policy. Her work in the Senate has mostly focused on health care, “women’s issues”, and homeland security and emergency preparedness, and for the most part her presidential campaign hit those same basic themes. Which is not to say that she wouldn’t do a good job as Secretary of State. She and Obama largely seemed to agree on the details of foreign policy; she reportedly handled the foreign travel and diplomatic aspects of being First Lady very well; she’s extremely smart, capable, and forceful, and has developed a reputation in the Senate of being able to work cordially with people with whom she disagrees. In other words, she’s exactly the kind of person who you want as Secretary of State. But does she want the job?
Well, let’s look at it from her perspective. Assuming that Clinton still maintains political ambitions, she has two potential paths: Senate Majority Leader and President.
If she wants to run for President again, she has one shot left: 2016. At that point, she’ll have just turned 69 years old; the oldest person to ever win election (for a first term) was Reagan in 1980, who was about to turn 70. If she wants to do that, her number one priority right now needs to be getting out of the Senate and into another high-profile public service job. Why? Because no one has ever served more than two terms in the United States Senate and gone on to be president. LBJ holds the record, at exactly two terms. The longest serving Senator to ever be elected directly to the presidency from the Senate was John F. Kennedy, and he served all of eight years–which happens to be how long Clinton has already served. I have plenty of theories why that is, but I won’t get in to them now–just suffice it to say that if Clinton ever wants to be president, she needs to leave the Senate as soon as possible.
On the other hand, Secretary of State could be exactly the post that Clinton needs to fill out her resume. It would give her impeccable foreign policy credentials. It’s a high-profile enough position that she could still get plenty of news headlines. The press tends to be very kind to Secretaries of State; it’s one of the rare positions where successes tend to belong to you and failures tend to belong to your boss. Biden probably won’t run for president again (he’ll be 74), so Clinton can run as the successor to the Obama Administration (if Obama wins reelection). And historically, while it hasn’t happened in quite a while, cabinet members have done well running for president, if they are high-profile enough (and certainly Clinton qualifies on that count). In short, if Clinton still holds out hope to be president one day, then she should take the job.
On the other hand, Clinton may not want to put herself through that again. And right now, she’s on a path to power in the United States Senate. She’s made a lot of friends, has raised a lot of money for fellow Democrats, and has developed a reputation for her collegial relationship with Senators from both sides of the aisle. She has a shot at taking a leadership position the next time one becomes available–and becoming the first female majority leader is certainly not out of the question. And there are benefits to staying in the Senate. She can hold power in the Senate for another twenty or thirty years, and potentially be Majority or Minority Leader for a good chunk of that time. It would give her enormous influence over the policies that she cares most deeply about. Besides, by all accounts she loves her job and she’s good at it; if she wants to stay there, more power to her.
In other words, from her perspective, Secretary of State is the high-risk, high-reward option. It gives her a chance to be president, but she also might be faced with an early retirement if she clashes with Obama, if Obama fails to win reelection, or if she loses her own bid to become president. Moreover, it would force her to give up the job of United States Senator, which by all accounts is a pretty fabulous way to spend your waning years. It’s a tough choice, and I understand why she’s taking a few days to consider her options.