It Worked for Lincoln, But…


In his “60 Minutes” interview with Steve Kroft last Sunday, President-elect Obama mentioned, not for the first time, his intention to create a “Team of Rivals,” as in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book about the Lincoln administration. That was the idea behind his pick of Joe Biden for vice-president.

But it doesn’t seem to be working as well with Hillary Clinton, whom the UK Guardian reports “plans to accept the job of secretary of state.”

First off, take the Guardian’s certitude about Sen. Clinton’s plans with a grain of salt. Just the strong possibility is “roiling Obamaland,” in Ben Smith’s words.

Number one problem: the potential conflict of interest with Bill Clinton’s overseas fundraising and philanthropic ventures, as part of which the former president has “taken millions in speaking fees and contributions from foreign officials and businesses with interests in American governmental policies.”

Matthew Yglesias thinks the foreign entanglements issue is pretty serious. Why even go there?

I’d consider it one more reason why this may not really be something the Clinton family wants to do. As far as I’m concerned, the John Kerry idea seemed perfectly fine — Kerry clearly supports Obama’s foreign policy agenda, he has more experience in diplomatic matters than anyone in the Senate other than Joe Biden and Dick Lugar, and the idea that it would somehow be unacceptable for Russ Feingold to chair the Foreign Relations committee is ludicrous.

Another major “problem” about Sen. Clinton at State is mostly a media creation:

Discussing reports that President-elect Barack Obama is considering naming Sen. Hillary Clinton secretary of state, several media figures have responded with smears, including 1) speculation that Clinton would pursue her own agenda as secretary of state and not Obama’s, with at least one pundit speculating that she would attempt to set up a “parallel government” and another suggesting she might use the job to position herself to deny Obama the Democratic nomination in 2012; 2) references to Clinton as Obama’s “enem[y]” with invocations of the adage from The Godfather: Part II that Obama is considering the nomination out of a desire to “keep[] his friends close and his enemies closer”; and 3) speculation that Obama is considering the nomination because if Clinton remains in the Senate, she poses a threat of challenging him for the nomination in 2012 and can “mak[e] trouble” for him in the Senate.

Whiskey Fire imagines the damage will be elephantine in its destructiveness. Nevertheless, Barack Obama will be able to take comfort in one thought: “Well, I guess she’s still more of a ‘team player’ than Lieberman.”

But seriously, folks:

What seems far less fair to me is to think Hillary Clinton would be some kind of rogue player in an Obama administration, using her power to further her own goals. Greg Sargent noted:

My own sense from talking to foreign policy types in touch with Obama’s people is that Obamaland thinks Hillary has the requisite global stature for the gig and also is enough of a genuine team player to function well in Obama’s cabinet — a view that’s markedly at odds with the “Clintons will undermine Obama from within” type commentary we keep hearing.

Of course she’s a team player. Didn’t she prove that to the party over the last three months of the campaign, when she hit the trail in support of the Democratic ticket she wasn’t on?

Clinton wouldn’t accept the opportunity if she weren’t prepared to help execute Obama’s foreign policy and diplomatic goals. It’s as simple as that.

As Atrios concluded, “I don’t think I’m going to be able to worked up about Obama’s personnel decisions generally, but I agree that the idea that Hillary Clinton might go ‘rogue’ or need to be fired is just absurd. The Clintons just drive the media insane.”

There is also the ‘Secretary of State? That’s a terrible career move for Hillary!’ meme. Ezra Klein has a terrific response to that one:

… an overwhelming amount of the commentary has been about what the position means for Clinton’s assumed presidential ambitions. So here’s my addition to the genre: Nothing. It may even mean that she’s given up on those ambitions.

Presuming that Hillary Clinton will remain one of, if not the, central actors in Democratic life from the year 2000 to the year 2016 displays a certain poverty of imagination about the path of Democratic politics. With every passing day, her singular political position erodes. In 2004, she would have won the nomination in a walk. By 2008, there was a new politician who better tapped into that particular moment in the party’s life. By 2016, there will be many politicians like that, most of whose names we don’t know. It’s very hard to imagine that eight years in the future, the party will want to move back to Clinton. Indeed, if Obama fails in governance and loses in 2012, there will be a new politician articulating a theory of relevance to that failure, and that moment. If he succeeds, then the party will look to a more logical successor — not his predecessor.

That said, the question of what she wants to spend the next eight years doing is a good one. She won’t be Ted Kennedy. She doesn’t have the time. Doesn’t have the time to build the relationships, or ascend to chair the committees. Kennedy had decades to build his legislative power and top the seniority system. His power is not just personal, it is procedural. He chairs the HELP Committee. Clinton does not. And Kennedy became Kennedy in the aftermath of Carter’s collapse. Kennedy lost, but Carter was vanquished months later. The Democratic Party had no leaders, and he could step into the breach. That’s not true today. Obama has at least four years of leadership. So maybe Clinton simply feels like she will do more good, and have more fun, as Secretary of State. And maybe, when that ends, she looks forward to having a couple of years to live her life. Her own life.

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