"Secretary of state is not something you throw at the other party to show how bipartisan you are. The job is way more important than that. This is your representative to the world." –Senator Arnold Vinick to President-elect Matt Santos, The West Wing, Season 7
A couple of weeks ago, I proposed a howler of an idea in this space: If Barack Obama is lucky enough to be reelected, he should choose his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, as his secretary of state.
The idea wasn't serious; the point behind it was. For the first time in a quarter-century, the United States has a bipartisan -- even nonpartisan -- consensus on many of the core issues relating to the country's foreign policy. Briefly put, if you can get past the campaign rhetoric, there's not much difference between the candidates on Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, fighting terrorists, avoiding costly wars, the Arab Spring, and even, in the real world of imperfect options, how to deal with recalcitrant Russians and Chinese.
That consensus may prove to be pretty durable. But to give it real meaning, whoever is elected president ought to choose a secretary of state clearly and unmistakably identified with the opposing party.
The key variable for selection -- of course -- must be the right qualifications to do the job. But if there's a candidate from the other party who passes the experience and résumé test, President Obama or President Romney shouldn't hesitate to pull the trigger. It will be good for the country. Here's why.
The Bipartisan Illusion: Make It Real
It's curious, particularly given that America prides itself on a foreign policy driven by bipartisan -- even nonpartisan -- logic, that it has never had a president in the modern period who appointed a secretary of state from the opposing party. Back in the day, you might have argued that since the secretary of state was third in line to succeed the president (it's now fourth), you wouldn't want someone from the opposing party that close to the White House. Indeed, it rarely happened. In a bipartisan gesture, President Grover Cleveland nominated Walter Quinten Gresham as secretary of state in 1893. Gresham, who ran for president in the Republican primaries in 1884 and 1888 served until his death in May 1895.
It leads you to the somewhat inescapable conclusion that there's clearly a good deal more myth than reality to the old saw about politics stopping at the water's edge. The Founding Fathers fought bitter battles over relations with Britain and France. Americans have been arguing about war and peace ever since, even while they have signed up to various contradictory principles about their special role in the world and their frequent desire to avoid getting involved in it ("monsters to destroy" and all that).
Let's not forget Republican attacks on Bill Clinton's foreign policies -- "rudderless and illusory," as Bob Dole charged on almost every key issue from North Korea to Somalia -- nor the polarized climate in which George W. Bush pursued his. Before we get carried away on a wave of bipartisan togetherness, let's consider the fact that the United States has had just six secretaries of state successfully seek the presidency -- Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren, and James Buchanan -- and a number of others who tried unsuccessfully. (I suspect the country may have a seventh before the decade is over.)
Yet, the position of America's top diplomat is curiously perceived to be bipartisan. Indeed, the public attaches great prestige to the office and image of the secretary of state and sees the job somehow as above the political fray. Both Colin Powell and Hillary Clinton were and are immensely popular, often more so than their respective bosses, partly because of this image. And the half-life of former secretaries of state -- as opposed to other cabinet officials, who fade very quickly -- is a prolonged one. The country's top diplomats tend to do very well after their time at Foggy Bottom, emerging as highly visible public figures who author bestselling books, write op-eds, urge bipartisanship, cooperation, and comity, and generally offer wise counsel in the conduct of the country's affairs.
Still, the selection process has remained hostage to party politics. This is self-defeating because it denies the president access to a greater talent pool and misses an opportunity to show greater resolve and unity to friends and enemies abroad. The time has come to make the image of a bipartisan foreign policy accord with the reality. Americans have been breaking plenty of tough taboos lately and crossing important lines in their politics relating to gender and race; why should the partisanship barrier not be broken too? There are plenty of precedents at the cabinet level for presidents reaching across the aisle: John F. Kennedy made Douglas Dillon his treasury secretary; Richard Nixon made John Connally his in 1971. Bill Clinton appointed William Cohen as his defense secretary, and Obama looked to Robert Gates to continue on as his.