Does the White House want Mitch McConnell to be majority leader?

November 13, 2012

The Washington Post is reporting that Sen. John Kerry is being seriously considered to head the Department of Defense. I cannot, for the life of me, understand why.

The Washington Post

In 2009, the incoming Obama administration tapped Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar to head the Interior Department, Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano to lead the Department of Homeland Security, and Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius to lead the Department of Health and Human Services.

Colorado was -- and is -- a swing state. Napolitano was hugely popular in Arizona, where Sen. John McCain, whose numbers looked weak, was up for reelection in 2010. Sebelius was massively popular in Kansas, Where Sam Brownback, one of the incumbent Republicans, was retiring.

So the White House removed a popular incumbent in a closely divided state and then knocked out their party's top draft picks in Arizona and Kansas. Democrats ended up almost losing the Colorado seat and barely contesting the Arizona and Kansas seats. 

Now it looks like the White House might be readying a repeat. In 2010, Scott Brown won a special election in Massachusetts to take Sen. Ted Kennedy's seat. In 2012, he lost that seat in a close race to Elizabeth Warren. Elevating Kerry to Defense Secretary would trigger another special election -- and given that the demographics of special elections tilt Republican, and that Brown is popular statewide, he might well win it. And given that Democrats are defending 20 Senate seats in 2014 and Republicans are defending only 13, that may be the difference between Harry Reid as majority leader and Mitch McConnell as majority leader.

This would make more sense if there was reason to believe senators and governors were somehow uniquely qualified to run cabinet-level agencies. But there's no reason to think that. In recent decades, Kerry has run a Senate office and a presidential campaign. That's impressive work, but it's not more relevant than the experience Ashton Carter has racked up as the Deputy Secretary of Defense. 

So what's the appeal of making these kinds of high-electoral risk, low-performance reward appointments? Payback might explain the Kerry appointment, as Kerry has been an incredibly loyal solider to Obama, but it doesn't explain Salazar or Napolitano. And this isn't a tendency limited to the Obama administration: Every White House makes these kinds of appointments -- think the Clinton White House elevating Texas Democrat Lloyd Bentsen to Treasury only to see him replaced in the Senate by Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison --  even though every White House should, in theory, prefer more senators of their party to fewer.

I've posed this question to decision makers, but I've never gotten a persuasive response. Maybe one of you can tell me.

Correction: I got my Kansans mixed up. It was Senator (and now Governor) Sam Brownback who was retiring in 2010. Pat Roberts, as you can see from his Web site, is still serving in the United States Senate. Indeed, he just signed onto Rand Paul's Audit the Fed bill.

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