The myth that Cabinet members have an inside White House track is based on early US history. Clinton is the only one to even be nominated since Hoover.
Leading Democratic senators are among the top names in the mix as President-elect Joe Biden and his transition team pick a Cabinet. Those floated include Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Christopher Coons of Delaware.
History shows that Biden would be wise to avoid using the Senate as a hunting ground, since putting senators in his Cabinet could mean losing Democratic seats to Republican appointees or election winners. Nor is it clear why senators feel a Cabinet position is worth it. Leading a government department is rarely a true power position. For those seeking higher office, the Cabinet is the graveyard of American presidential dreams.
Being a Cabinet secretary may seem like a great job. A senator only controls a handful of employees while a Cabinet member can be in charge of hundreds of thousands. The Cabinet member may directly make policy rather than try and write laws or push the administration or regulatory agencies to act.
‘Kitchen Cabinet’ beginning of the end
But the importance of the Cabinet has been declining since at least Andrew Jackson’s administration, when he relied mainly on the advice of his informal “kitchen cabinet” rather than his appointed secretaries. Over the years, the growth of the Office of the President has made it so that the real policy decisions come out of the White House.
Cabinet secretaries discover that their job is to take the bullet for potentially unpopular decisions that they have little input in making. Even former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who came into President Barack Obama’s Cabinet with arguably more authority than any other official, couldn’t trust that she would be invited to National Security Council meetings.
Sens. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar with fellow presidential candidate Joe Biden on Jan. 20, 2020, in Columbia, S.C. (Photo: Sean Rayford, Getty Images)
If the Cabinet is not the power position of yore, at least there is the potential for a resumé boost as the former senator seeks the White House, right? Well, the myth of Cabinet members having an inside track to the White House is based entirely on early American history. From Thomas Jefferson to Martin Van Buren, five of six presidents in a row first served as secretary of State. But since Van Buren, only three former Cabinet members have won the presidency: former Secretary of State James Buchanan, former Secretary of War William Howard Taft and former Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover (Ulysses S. Grant also served briefly as acting Secretary of War).
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Not only have Cabinet members not been able to win the presidency, they can’t win their party nominations. Outside of Clinton, arguably much better known for being a First Lady and senator than as a former secretary of State, not one former Cabinet member has won the nomination since Hoover. Even the vice presidential nomination is a step too far for most. Besides former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack Kemp, who ran with George W. Bush and Bob Dole, respectively, the last Cabinet member to be picked for a vice presidential run was Agriculture Secretary Henry Wallace in 1940.
Getting a Cabinet job is a way to end your White House dreams, not fulfill them.
Good reasons to avoid Senate picks
So why do presidents look to the Senate for Cabinet members? Generally, they do not. President Donald Trump did tap Sen. Jeff Sessions, who held a seemingly super safe seat in Alabama, as attorney general. President Barack Obama was highly unusual in selecting three senators — Clinton, John Kerry (her successor) and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar — and he would have had four if Republican Sen. Judd Gregg hadn’t backed out as Commerce secretary. Bill Clinton picked Lloyd Bentsen of Texas as Treasury secretary and Ed Muskie became Jimmy Carter’s second Secretary of State. Before that, my research shows, the last Senate pickswere by Franklin Roosevelt.
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Presidents avoid the Senate for good reason, as two of these choices show. In addition to Sessions being a thorn in Trump’s side by recusing himself from the Russia investigation, Republicans managed to lose the race to fill Sessions’ seat. Democrats had similarly failed to keep Bentsen’s seat in Texas. No Democrat has won a Texas Senate seat since then.
Both Biden and the senators should take a good look at those facts. Being a Cabinet member confers much less power than a senator may hope for and does not provide a career boost. At the same time, the party can ill afford to lose a Senate seat, even if the Republicans retain their majority in the Jan. 5 Senate runoffs in Georgia. Choosing a senator and opening up that seat to a new race or a Republican governor’s choice may very well lead to this result. Democrats should hope that all the talk of naming senators to the Cabinet is just talk.
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