December 21, 2012

Barack Obama today announced that he will nominate John Kerry for Secretary of State. Is it foolish for the president to risk a Senate seat?

Obama has been aggressive in selecting currently elected Democrats for his administration, including then-governors Janet Napolitano and Kathleen Sebelius and then-Senators Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden. Both Senate seats remained in Democratic hands, but Republicans picked up both governor seats. There’s at least a fair chance that Scott Brown will wind up as the new Senator from Massachusetts; a special election will be called this summer, with a temporary appointee serving until then, unless of course Massachusetts changes their law again.

While it’s certainly the case that every Senator counts, I don’t think the risk that Obama is taking here is all that strong. He’s not risking the 60th Senator or the 51st Senator, certainly not during the coming Congress. Even with a strong potential Republican contender, Massachusetts remains an overwhelmingly Democratic state, and it’s hard to see Brown as a real favorite to take the seat. If he did win, he would have to do it again, with the special election only filling the seat until the 2014 regular election. Indeed, many have speculated that Brown would have a safer path if he ran for governor in 2014.

And look, John Kerry turned 69 earlier this month. For all we know, he might not even have decided to run for another term in 2014, leaving the seat open anyway. The Senate matters — but so does the State Department, and the executive branch in general. If Obama really does believe that Kerry was the best person for the job, then it’s not a crazy risk to run that Democrats can hold the seat, especially since they’ll have two chances at it (assuming that is, that Brown would be finished if he lost the first time, and that no other Republican has a realistic chance of winning). It’s reasonable to expect Obama to weigh the costs of risking a Senate seat as part of his calculation in making these choices, but it shouldn’t be the only consideration — and the particular context matters, whether it’s the current exact balance of the Senate or the state of play in Massachusetts. 

And there’s always the chance that the new Senator from a liberal state will wind up adding always-welcome energy to the Democratic caucus. On the whole, it seems like a decent risk to take.