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How Democrats Keep Their Bench Shallow

Though there has been no official announcement, it appears John Kerry will be nominated to serve as the next secretary of state. This isn’t surprising, and one of the reasons newspapers feel so confident reporting it is that there have been no other names mentioned seriously for the post since conventional wisdom solidified around Susan Rice and Kerry as the two main choices. (Earlier in the process there were indeed other names floated, but the same process that brought down Rice’s shot at the post elevated Kerry.)

The question, then, is not who will be nominated but why there isn’t any such question. One answer is that President Obama had a clear first choice–Rice–and never intended to use her understudy. Kerry’s name was bandied about as an easier way to flatter the longtime senator. Since Kerry was always the bridesmaid but never the bride, having been passed over for this position before, it would have seemed cruel to make him compete for second place. Like a football team that goes into a game with only two activated quarterbacks and then loses its starter, the second-string quarterback gets the ball without much fuss. But that raises another question, posed by Yochi Dreazen in the Washington Post: Why would the Democrats have so few options in the first place?

It’s not terribly surprising that a political party that earns a reputation as disdainful of the military and its missions has trouble producing credible defense secretaries, as Dreazen notes when discussing the probable elevation of Chuck Hagel, a Republican, to run the Pentagon. But that does not answer the question about the weak bench at State. Indeed, you would think it would have the opposite effect: a generation of peacenik Democrats come of age would seem to be fertile ground for producing the kind of dealmaking bureaucrats who should be comfortable at Foggy Bottom, where vague terms like “engagement” and “smart power” represent a raison d’être.

This is a problem already in the process of working itself out, as Dreazen notes: the Democrats will (presumably) hold the White House for eight years now, training a new generation of diplomats and national security professionals. The party is also beginning to shake its aversion to the military, and so it has veterans in its civilian ranks as well.

Additionally, the Democrats seem to have realized that they have been hindering their party’s development for years now. Reports have centered on two possible interim replacements for Kerry should he be nominated: Michael Dukakis and Vicki Kennedy, Ted Kennedy’s widow. Either one would be expected to hold the seat until a special election can be held a few months later. This would enable Democrats to avoid what they have done in the past–actions that help explain how the Democratic Party could have such a shallow bench. In November, an election was held to replace the House seat long held by the ill-tempered and voluble Barney Frank. Now that a seat in Massachusetts had finally opened up, would the party use it to groom new talent? No, it would not. It would parachute in an inexperienced young Kennedy to close off the seat for what could be decades. (The state’s Democrats better hope Vicki Kennedy doesn’t get too comfortable in her interim seat, if she gets the nod, for that reason as well.)

Though it hasn’t been part of the discussion, Hillary Clinton’s nomination and service as secretary of state was evidence of the same problem. Having never served in elected office before Bill Clinton’s presidency, Hillary was handed a Senate seat upon moving out of the White House. Obama assumed Clinton would be less trouble to him abroad than in the Senate, where his initiatives would have to go through her. So rather than someone with foreign policy experience, Clinton was given the job. And now no one working for her at State will be elevated to take her place. Instead, it will be Kerry. And then Clinton will presumably run for president in 2016, when her party’s strategists are on record proposing that she run for the party’s nomination unopposed and simply be handed another title, at the expense of those with experience actually governing–in whose stead, should they win, would arise a new Democrat who would then get that same governing experience, and so on and so forth.

I don’t presume to speak for all the Democrats who keep being ignored by their party leadership in favor of generations of leadership by ruling family. They might not care, or they might enjoy serving a party run by an elite to which they will never belong. But they will probably also never be future secretaries of state or defense in Democratic presidential administrations.


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