Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts was Hillary Rodham Clinton’s only real rival for secretary of state in 2008; Susan Rice’s decision to pull out of the running means the job is his to lose. Retired senator Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican, had been a top contender to succeed Robert Gates as defense secretary in 2011; he is now the front-runner to replace Leon Panetta, who ended up with the job.
The fact that only two people, one a Republican, appear to be under serious consideration for these important jobs highlights a problem for the Democratic Party: When it comes to national security, its bench is surprisingly thin.
Consider the Pentagon. Panetta hasn’t said when he will step down, but he is widely expected to announce his retirement early next year. The Obama administration appears to be mulling a grand total of three potential successors: Hagel; former undersecretary of defense Michèle Flournoy; and Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter. If the rumors hold true, the job is most likely to go to Hagel, not to either Democrat.
It would not be the first time in recent years that a Democratic president turned over the Pentagon to a Republican. Bill Clinton tapped retired GOP senator William Cohen to be his defense secretary after he won reelection. President Obama kept George W. Bush appointee Robert Gates at the helm when he took office in 2009.
In the short term, Obama could gain politically from picking Hagel. The president has made clear that he plans to cut the defense budget, shrink the size of the armed forces and wind down the war in Afghanistan faster than many of his generals would prefer. Putting a Republican in charge of the Pentagon should make it easier to sell those moves on Capitol Hill. In the long term, though, the Democrats would clearly benefit from having more of their own with the experience and credibility to run key departments and defend contentious policies.
More immediately, Obama doesn’t have a lot of experienced Democratic foreign policy and defense hands to consider for top jobs in his administration. If Hagel or Kerry were to flame out in their new posts or retire after a couple of years, it’s not clear who would replace them.
The Democratic Party isn’t bereft of national security talent. Flournoy and Carter are well-regarded by the White House and could get top jobs down the road. Younger policymakers such as deputy national security adviserDenis McDonough and former deputy assistant secretary of defense Colin Kahl may also be tapped for powerful positions later in Obama’s second term. Samantha Power, a top Obama foreign policy adviser, could succeed Rice as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
There are political and practical reasons that the Democrats don’t have a longer roster of potential senior national security officials — and there are political and practical steps the party could take to develop more of them.