Senator John Kerry, prominently mentioned as the next secretary of state or defense, should stay right where he is.
Republicans hope to block the nomination of the top White House choice, UN Ambassador Susan Rice. They are holding a Rice nomination hostage for more information about what the president knew about the Benghazi attacks when he sent Rice onto Sunday talk shows with what turned out to be misleading information.
But this is a case of shoot-the-messenger. As President Obama himself has said, if Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and other Republican attackers of Rice have a beef, it is with the president and not his UN ambassador.
The other part of the GOP strategy is to promote Kerry for the job. The senator does go back a long way with John McCain, from when they worked together to free POWs and find G.I.’s listed as missing in action.
Lately, a parade of other Republican senators, including Susan Collins of Maine, Rob Portman of Ohio, and John Barrasso of Wyoming, have gone out of their way to say kind things about Kerry for secretary of state. But this is about a lot more than trust and affection for Kerry.
Pressuring the White House into naming Kerry would accomplish two GOP goals. First, it would humiliate Obama by denying him his first choice, Susan Rice. Second, it would open up a currently safe Massachusetts Senate seat.
The next midterm election will be one of the most hazardous ever for Democrats, who currently hold a 55-45 margin in the Senate.
Pressuring the White House into naming Kerry would accomplish two GOP goals.
At least nine Senate Democrats are considered vulnerable in 2014, and no incumbent Republicans. If Republicans take control of the Senate, a newly feisty Obama will be totally hamstrung for his final two years.
The vulnerable nine are Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mark Begich of Alaska, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Al Franken of Minnesota, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Tim Johnson of South Dakota, and Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia.
If the Kerry seat opened up, that would make 10. Scott Brown would likely run, and win.
Only one Democrat could readily hold the seat, Governor Deval Patrick. But Patrick has told his family, staff, and donors, as well as Obama, that he has no interest in going to Washington.
Patrick’s six years in government have sometimes taken a toll on his family, as well on his personal finances. He is eager to make repairs on both fronts.
Patrick has made clear that he wants to spend the next two years working to stabilize Massachusetts’ finances, so that there will be adequate long-term funding for education, health, and public investments rather than a biennial demolition derby. He then plans to return to the private sector.
Should Obama name Kerry as secretary of state (the job Kerry really wants) or defense, the pressure would increase on Patrick to take the seat on an interim basis and then run in the forthcoming special election. But the signs indicate that Patrick is not playing coy and genuinely would decline. So despite all the buzz, the Republican clamor for Obama to give Kerry the State Department job plus the risk of the Democrats losing the Senate seat just may kill the idea.
Though Obama loves to take advantage of opportunities to demonstrate bipartisanship, naming Kerry because the Republicans favor him is not a bipartisan gesture that serves the president’s interest.
Although the Kerry camp believes that Obama owes a debt from 2004, when Kerry — then the Democratic presidential nominee — went along with the idea to have Obama give the convention keynote address that turned out to launch his campaign for president, the two men are not particularly close. The White House is said to worry that Kerry would be too much of a freelancer, in contrast to Hillary Clinton, who has turned out to be a superb team player, and Rice, who is a close confidante.
Obama seems to take the Republican attack on Rice personally, and may well stick with her as part of his new assertive stance. Republicans don’t have the votes to block her, and a Republican filibuster on a key appointment, at a time when Senate Democrats are seriously considering reform of the filibuster rules, could well backfire politically.
On all counts, don’t be surprised if Senator Kerry stays put.Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and a senior fellow at Demos.