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Farah Stockman

Mass. politics play a role in John Kerry’s cabinet prospects

Would John Kerry make a good Secretary of Defense? Forget, for a minute, about his wonky side. Forget the fact that his father was a foreign service officer and that he almost certainly has his heart set on the patrician pursuit of diplomacy, rather than the chess game of military might. Consider the fact that John Kerry served for more years in the military than Donald Rumsfeld, Robert Gates or Leon Panetta. (He likely has more combat experience than the three of them combined.)

A long-time foreign policy hand based in Washington DC told me this morning: “Kerry carried an M-16 through the jungle. This is a man who was shot at in Vietnam. He cares deeply about military issues and is good with budgets. He has gravitas and the respect of world leaders. He already knows intelligence issues.”

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The Pentagon might play to Kerry’s strengths - his knowledge of policy and strategy – while downplaying his weaknesses. Defense Secretaries work behind the scenes. They don’t have to be all that charismatic. While Kerry has never run anything close to the size of the leviathan of the US military, the Pentagon tends to be well-oiled machine that can withstand some management snafus at the top.

But there is another reason that the Obama administration is floating this trial balloon: It solves the unfortunate problem of Scott Brown.

Appointing Kerry to a cabinet post now would mean vacating a senate seat that Scott Brown could easily win. (Defeat is only temporary, remember?) That would erode the Democrats’ thin majority in the Senate. But if Panetta can hang on for another two years, Democrats could wait to see how they do in the 2014 elections before taking the risk of giving up Kerry’s safe seat.

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But it is, in many ways, a shame that these political calculations play such a large factor in the Secretary of State sweepstakes.

For the past four years, the Obama administration has leaned on Kerry as its foreign affairs Fix It Man. When Pakistani authorities arrested CIA contractor Ray Davis and refused to let him go, the Obama administration sent John Kerry over to get him out. When Afghan president Hamid Karzai refused to accept the results of an election, Kerry was asked to convince him to do it. When Sudan looked like it was about to slide back into a devastating civil war, Kerry travel three times to the troubled African country, relaying carefully-worded messages from the Obama administration aimed at keeping the peace process on track. When the Muslim Brotherhood looked like it was on the verge of winning political power in Egypt, Kerry was the first senior American official to meet with them.

Add to all that to the fact that it was John Kerry who gave Obama his first shot on the national stage - Obama’s keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National convention - and you can understand how Obama might feel he owes John Kerry something.

Floating Kerry’s name for Defense Secretary allows the administration to show its appreciation for Kerry, while buying time for Scott Brown’s campaign machinery to melt away.

Farah Stockman can be reached at fstockman@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fstockman.
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