Nov 17 2008

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Señor Secretary

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The Clintons are just the gift that keeps on giving.

Having dispatched Mrs. Clinton in the primaries and then endured the snarky second guessing in his running mate selection, President-elect Obama seems to be tempting fate himself this time, apparently considering the former First Lady as Secretary of State.

The ink runs thick on this.

The media are infatuated with Doris Kerns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, a book that explores the political genius of Abraham Lincoln in choosing political competitors for key cabinet slots during the Civil War. The book serves two journalistic narratives, namely, to further solidify Obama’s “genius” while casting unsubtle aspersions to contrast the insular Bush administration for its obvious failure to reach out to different opinions over the past eight years.

Of course none of Lincoln’s rivals in 1860 had the ensemble of challenges and loose strings as Mrs. Clinton brings to the table. One only needs to consider how Lincoln’s appointments may have been different if his esteemed Secretary of State, William Seward, had been married to the 14th President of the United States.

And what of the liberal Netroots base? Can anyone tell me the one Democratic presidential candidate who refused to apologize for her Iraq war vote?  And who ran well to the right of Senator Obama on relations with Israel and hawkishness on Iran?

As for the body politic, no matter how heroic the notion of gathering up former opponents to tackle the challenges of the day with common purpose, appointing Senator Clinton as Secretary of State is hardly bringing change to Washington, particularly in a transition awash with Clinton alumni.

Not to put to fine a point on it, but what does Secretary of State Clinton bring to the table?  What’s more, why should she want it?

Mrs. Clinton now has eight years in the Senate. The presidential campaign, while ultimately unsuccessful, created a unique political persona for the Senator that is (finally) distinct from her husband’s.

Even Republicans will concede that Mrs. Clinton is an effective legislator; prepared, informed and effective.  By actually paying attention to the concerns of people who live in upstate New York, she has helped turn a red area of the state into shades of blue.  So why would Senator Clinton want to give that up to shill for the guy who beat her in the primaries, just to get a title? And while Secretary of State is certainly prestigious, it is not the area when Mrs. Clinton has demonstrated her passion.

So if neither Clinton nor Obama ultimately get something from her appointment as Secretary, why the meeting and the subsequent frantic speculation?

Perhaps there is a grander bargain that serves both their interests.

First publicly, Obama gets to show the proper deference to Hillary that he missed during the VP auditions by “vetting” her for a top Administration position. When Mrs. Clinton declines the offer, there will be no harm, no foul. Her prestige goes up, his outreach is enhanced.

Getting down to business is not about Mrs. Clinton becoming Secretary but her price for endorsing the President-elect’s best choice for State, Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico.

Richardson would be the first Latino Secretary of State; another glass shattering appointment to a constituency whose support helped Obama in critical states, and whose selection will reverberate globally.

Moreover, Richardson is much closer to Obama’s view of world affairs, sharing the President-elect’s commitment to dialogue, having already practiced his own version of “rogue diplomacy” with many of the world’s current and past despots.

As far as experience, Richardson has been a congressman, Energy Secretary, Governor and, critically, UN Ambassador. He has been nominated five times for the Nobel Peace prize for his international endeavors. No one can say he is not prepared from Day #1 for the job. It is the kind of change that Obama promised, in both symbolism and substance.

The problem is that the Clinton’s “made” Richardson. He was plucked from the obscurity of Congress by the Clintons to be UN Ambassador and later Energy Secretary. After the Clinton years, Richardson returned to New Mexico and became a successful governor.

Having run for president in his own right and dropped out in early 2008, Richardson backed Obama in March, during the heat of the primary campaign, an expression of disloyalty that Clinton loyalist James Carville compared to that of Judas Iscariot.

No, to land Richardson, Obama needs to deal with Mrs. Clinton.

On Mrs. Clinton’s side, it might mean the appointment of some of her loyalists (though the appointment of Clintonistas does not seem to be a problem thus far). Tom Vilsack an early and vocal supporter of Mrs. Clinton might serve Obama’s purposes as well as Agriculture Secretary in a hat tip to Iowa.

Second, Mrs. Clinton might insist upon the President’s support for a key role in the upcoming health care debate. As Senator Kennedy fades, it may only be natural for Senator Clinton to pick up that mantle and lead the charge for passage of health care reform that was a black mark for her and the undoing of the Democratic majority in 1994. With that victory would come the third, final and most important piece; President Obama’s support for Mrs. Clinton as Senate Majority Leader.

If you think this is outlandish, consider that Harry Reid himself once talked about the Mrs. Clinton becoming the Senate Democrat leader as a possible route to keep her out of presidential politics, though he was in the minority at the time and may think twice now that he owns the Majority Leader’s digs.

So there you have it. Obama gets Richardson at State now in return for lesser Cabinet pick(s), policy deference and a Senate Majority Leader slot to be named later.

In Obamaland, foreign policy is transformed, the Clintons are brought close, the Party unites, and key pieces of social legislation pass as negotiated settlements lead to restored American greatness across the globe. Defeats are glossed over, legacies are polished and created.

It’s this or Bill Clinton mistakenly reaching for the phone at 3am.  Which seems more likely?

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