Just this morning, incoming Maine Senator Angus King, an independent, announced that he would be caucusing with Democrats, giving the party a working majority of 55 members—53 Democrats and two independents (the other is Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders).
Among many other things, this makes it more likely that Massachusetts Senator John Kerry will be plucked from Congress and given a job in the administration, where he would likely serve as Secretary of Defense. Indeed, as the Washington Post reported yesterday, administration officials see the larger Senate majority as an opportunity to grab a candidate that they like:
[A]dministration officials, one of whom described Kerry as a “war hero,” said his qualifications for the defense job included not only his naval service in Vietnam but also his knowledge of the budget and experience in the diplomacy that has increasingly become a part of the defense portfolio. They said the Democrats’ retention of the Senate majority, with a net gain of two seats, in the election provided a cushion that allowed them to consider Kerry’s departure from the chamber.
This is a terrible idea. Yes, Kerry comes from a reliably liberal state, but that’s only in presidential elections. If they run the right person, moderate Republicans can fare well in Massachusetts, and in fact, should Kerry leave the Senate, there will be one such Republican—Scott Brown—who will be angling to get back into the Senate. And Kerry isn’t the only currently serving Democratic politician up for an administration job; Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick has been floated as a choice to replace Eric Holder at the Justice Department, and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island has also been considered for Defense.
None of this is good.
If there’s anything Obama should have learned in his first time, it’s that the larger the legislative majority, the better. There are plenty of people—both within and outside the administration—who could serve as cabinet members. But there are relatively few people who can run and win statewide races. Even if the state is reliably blue, it’s too much of a risk; a freak Republican win in Rhode Island, for example, could jeopardize whatever Obama is trying to shepherd through Congress.
You could say that—in a world where filibuster reform is on the table—it makes a little more sense to draw from the legislature. But I’m not convinced; even with filibuster reform, there's still a large number of veto points in the Senate. And if you’re concerned with big, ambitious legislation, a veteran lawmaker with a strong working knowledge of the chamber is worth far more than the newbie who would replace her.
This also applies to people who lead states. Janet Napolitano, head of the Department of Homeland Security, joined the cabinet from her perch in Arizona, where she was governor. As far as Democratic priorities are concerned, it would have been better for her to stay in the state and run for Senate against Republican Jeff Flake. Likewise, Kathleen Sebelius, who was brought from Kansas to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, could have run to replace former Senator Sam Brownback. Now, because of their service in the Obama administration—and in particular, Sebelius's role in implementing the Affordable Care Act—both are hard sells for the conservative electorates in their respective states.
It’s common knowledge that John Kerry wants to leave the Senate and serve in a high-profile cabinet position. But, from the perspective of the Democratic agenda—and not Kerry’s ambition—it would be better if he stayed in his seat. His guaranteed vote in the Senate is worth far more to making good policy than a place in the Obama administration.