WASHINGTON — The handicapping began even before all the votes were counted.
Thomas Wright, a foreign policy specialist at the Brookings Institution, posted on his Twitter account early Wednesday that the election “is very good news for John Kerry’s prospects for secretary of state.” Within hours Russian and British press reports made it sound all but a foregone conclusion that the Massachusetts Democrat will be elevated to the position of America’s top diplomat in President Obama’s second term.
But closer to home, others wondered whether the potential political implications of plucking a leading Democratic lawmaker might prevent Kerry, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, from achieving what many close to him say is his dream job after losing the presidency in 2004. The Hill newspaper, for example, pointed out that Republican Senator Scott Brown, who was defeated by Democrat Elizabeth Warren, could make another bid for an open seat if the Bay State’s senior senator stepped down.
“You have some immediate political calculations you have to work through,” said Needham native P.J. Crowley, a retired Air Force colonel and former assistant secretary of state in the Obama administration who teaches at George Washington University. “Because of the change in the law there will be a special election. After going through a hard-fought campaign, Senator Brown would have to be a leading candidate to replace Senator Kerry.”
Nonetheless, Crowley acknowledged that after picking up a few more seats in the Senate on Tuesday, the Democrats have “a bit of a cushion” that could considerably reduce concerns about risking a traditionally safe Democratic seat. Meanwhile, Bay State political watchers stressed that Brown’s future electoral prospects — decidedly more remote after an 8-point loss to Warren — would be unlikely to affect the White House’s calculations in filling the Cabinet post.
“The president and the White House no longer need to be concerned about one Republican vote the way they were in 2010 when they were shepherding Obamacare through the Senate,” said Stonehill College professor Peter Ubertaccio. “They have a safe majority now.”
Speculation that Kerry could replace Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has said she will not serve in a second Obama administration, has swirled for months.
Kerry declined to speak about the popular Washington parlor game on Wednesday but in the past has sought to quell any such speculation.
“I’m doing the job I love as chairman and senior senator,” he told the Globe in June. “I’m working hard at both, and I’m already preparing to run for reelection” in 2014.
The 68-year-old Kerry has been a key ally of the administration and played chief surrogate in a series of global hot spots over the past four years, convincing Afghan President Hamid Karzai to agree to a runoff election in 2009 and negotiating a peace deal between warring factions in Sudan. For many, he is seen as a logical choice to manage the nation’s thorniest foreign policy problems, from Iran to Afghanistan to China.
“I think he is a real prospect,” said Jon Wolfsthal, who served as a foreign policy adviser to Vice President Joe Biden until earlier this year. “Above all things the president values two qualities: One is capability, the second is loyalty. Over the past four years Kerry has shown both of those in spades.” Kerry stood in for Mitt Romney during the president’s debate preparations.
A senior State Department official who asked not to be named speculating about who might be his future boss, described the “water cooler conversation” in Foggy Bottom about Kerry like this: “Because of the number of trips he has taken as head of Senate foreign relations he is pretty well known to a number of people and he is very highly regarded. So I think it would be a popular choice.”
There are other leading candidates for secretary of state who have been widely mentioned, including the US ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, and Obama’s national security adviser, Thomas E. Donilon, a Rhode Island native who served as chief of staff at the State Department during the Clinton administration.
Crowley said that both Obama insiders have a tried and true path to the job. Rice could follow in the footsteps of former Clinton administration Secretary of State Madeliene Albright, who was also a former UN ambassador, while one of Donilon’s recent predecessors, Condoleezza Rice, was elevated to secretary of state in George W. Bush’s administration.
But the State Department official said that while they “have instant name recognition . . . they don’t have instant stature” like Kerry, who has served on the foreign relations panel for 27 years and personally knows virtually every major world leader. “That is a big difference.”
“John Kerry was born to be secretary of state,” said historian and Kerry biographer Douglas Brinkley. “His father was a diplomat in Europe in the early Cold War years. He is fluent in French, Portuguese, and Italian. Probably no US senator knows more about the situation in Afghanistan and the Middle East than Kerry.”
Kerry would also likely have an easy time getting confirmed by his colleagues in the Senate, whereas questions might be raised about Rice’s role in the administration's clumsy early efforts to explain the terrorist attack in Benghazi that killed the US ambassador to Libya and three others.
Yet Wolfsthal, for one, is not betting on him just yet.
“The president is going to cast a wide net because he knows he can get anyone he wants,” he said. “He likes to do historic things.”