If the names being bandied about to fill the top jobs at the State Department and the Pentagon sound familiar, they should.
Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts was Hillary Rodham Clinton’s only real rival for secretary of state in 2008; Susan Rice’s decision to pull out of the running means the job is his to lose. Retired senator Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican, had been a top contender to succeed Robert Gates as defense secretary in 2011; he is now the front-runner to replace Leon Panetta, who ended up with the job.
The fact that only two people, one a Republican, appear to be under serious consideration for these important jobs highlights a problem for the Democratic Party: When it comes to national security, its bench is surprisingly thin.
Consider the Pentagon. Panetta hasn’t said when he will step down, but he is widely expected to announce his retirement early next year. The Obama administration appears to be mulling a grand total of three potential successors: Hagel; former undersecretary of defense Michèle Flournoy; and Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter. If the rumors hold true, the job is most likely to go to Hagel, not to either Democrat.
It would not be the first time in recent years that a Democratic president turned over the Pentagon to a Republican. Bill Clinton tapped retired GOP senator William Cohen to be his defense secretary after he won reelection. President Obama kept George W. Bush appointee Robert Gates at the helm when he took office in 2009.
In the short term, Obama could gain politically from picking Hagel. The president has made clear that he plans to cut the defense budget, shrink the size of the armed forces and wind down the war in Afghanistan faster than many of his generals would prefer. Putting a Republican in charge of the Pentagon should make it easier to sell those moves on Capitol Hill. In the long term, though, the Democrats would clearly benefit from having more of their own with the experience and credibility to run key departments and defend contentious policies.
More immediately, Obama doesn’t have a lot of experienced Democratic foreign policy and defense hands to consider for top jobs in his administration. If Hagel or Kerry were to flame out in their new posts or retire after a couple of years, it’s not clear who would replace them.
The Democratic Party isn’t bereft of national security talent. Flournoy and Carter are well-regarded by the White House and could get top jobs down the road. Younger policymakers such as deputy national security adviserDenis McDonough and former deputy assistant secretary of defense Colin Kahl may also be tapped for powerful positions later in Obama’s second term. Samantha Power, a top Obama foreign policy adviser, could succeed Rice as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
There are political and practical reasons that the Democrats don’t have a longer roster of potential senior national security officials — and there are political and practical steps the party could take to develop more of them.
The thin Democratic bench reflects the evolution of the party’s thinking on national security issues. In the 1960s, Democratic presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson took the nation into Vietnam, while hawkish Democratic lawmakers such as Rep. Henry “Scoop” Jackson supported muscular efforts to contain the Soviet Union. But many Democrats turned against the war as it dragged on, and a generation of Democratic lawmakers and policymakers came of age with an ingrained skepticism of the use of American military force abroad.
Traditionally, many of the Democrats who held the top jobs at the Pentagon and the State Department had worked there before or had come from high-level positions on Capitol Hill or in the think tank world. Warren Christopher served as the deputy secretary of state in the Carter administration before taking the department’s top job during the early Clinton years. Les Aspin, who served as Clinton’s first defense secretary, chaired the House Armed Services Committee for nearly a decade. Kerry, if picked to succeed Hillary Clinton, will leave his post chairing the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
But today, those pipelines are largely tapped out. On Capitol Hill, many of the Democratic lawmakers with the most experience handling defense and policy issues have retired, have lost their reelection campaigns or have already been pulled into the administration. World War II veteran Daniel Akaka (Hawaii)stepped down from his Senate seat and will be replaced by the newly elected Mazie Hirono, who wasn’t a member of the armed forces. Sen. Jim Webb (Va.), a decorated Vietnam veteran, will be replaced by Tim Kaine, who also didn’t serve. Military service isn’t a must for any of these jobs, but it buys credibility at the Pentagon, especially at a time of steep budget cuts.
Democrats could begin to remedy that shortcoming — and develop future candidates for senior national security jobs — by getting more veterans of the military or the State Department into high-profile Senate seats.
Newly elected Rep. Tammy Duckworth (Ill.), who lost both her legs in combat in Iraq, is likely to challenge Republican Sen. Mark Kirk when he comes up for reelection in 2016. A Duckworth victory could put her on the fast track for a top defense position in the next Democratic administration, because serving in the Senate would allow her to significantly raise her profile and gain more experience with thorny national security issues.
Similarly, Jake Sullivan, one of Hillary Clinton’s top advisers at the State Department, has told associates that he may return to his native Minnesota to run for Congress. He could also throw his hat in the ring if either of the state’s two Democratic senators decides to step down when his or her term comes up. Winning either race could make Sullivan a viable choice for secretary of state, deputy secretary of state or a high-level position on the National Security Council in coming years.
Democratic leaders, meanwhile, are hoping to use think tanks to groom a new generation of left-leaning national security specialists, but the process will take time.
The Truman National Security Project is one of the few institutions with an avowed goal of getting more young Democrats into key Pentagon and State Department positions, but it’s a small organization, and it’s unclear how many of its alumni will get plum jobs in the second Obama term. The nonpartisan Center for a New American Security — where I’m a writer in residence — has had more success sprinkling its staffers into the administration, but most are relatively junior officials who aren’t likely to be viable candidates for top positions until the next Democratic presidency.
Democrats could speed that process by steering mid-level national security hands into the two organizations so they could gain the experience and outside connections that may help them land higher-profile administration jobs in coming years.
In the meantime, the Democrats’ national security bench may soon be put to another test. Carter, one of the top contenders to succeed Panetta, is rumored to be Obama’s choice to be the next energy secretary. The president won’t pick a Republican for Carter’s powerful job at the Pentagon, but he won’t have many senior Democratic officials to consider as a replacement.
The Washington Nationals successfully rebuilt their roster by bringing in young, somewhat unproven talent. If the Democrats get smart, they’ll do the same when it comes to foreign policy and defense.