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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The Lure of the Cabinet

At OpenLeft today, Chris Bowers asks a good question: is it more attractive, on balance, for a politician like, say, Kathleen Sebelius or Janet Napolitano, to accept a position in the Cabinet as opposed to continuing as governor or running for the U.S. Senate?
Chris, who admits he was disappointed by Napolitano’s decision to become Secretary of DHS and is ready to be disappointed if Sebelius becomes Secretary of HHS, mainly because he views both women as the best available Senate candidates in their states, nonetheless comes up with a list of reasons for instead getting Lost in the Cabinet.
It’s a perfectly good list that mainly focuses on what a risky and difficult chore it is to run for statewide office, but I do think he misses a couple of pertinent points.
For one thing, 2009 is a historically bad time to be a governor, particularly in states like Arizona and Kansas with Republican-controlled legislatures. The pressure to cut services or raise taxes (the latter very difficult in a conservative state) is enormous, even with the help now on the way via the economic stimulus package. And both Napolitano and Sebelius are term-limited after next year, so neither could run for another term in the hopes of better economic times.
For another thing, you shouldn’t conflate gubernatorial and senatorial gigs as “statewide offices.” Governors, even in bad times, typically wield a lot of power. They have thousands of state employees ultimately reporting to them; don’t really have to answer to anyone other than the law and the public; and can make news pretty much whenever they want. They also get a free place to live, usually a very nice one with state-paid help.
A Senator is one of a hundred preening narcissists. A freshman has little real influence. Staffs are tiny by state government standards, and turnover is heavy. The solons are invariably subordinate to the party leadership and various committee and subcomittee chairs. And you have to maintain not one but two homes at your own expense, and live a bifurcated existence of shuttling between Washington and your home state (otherwise you are “losing touch”). There’s a good reason most Senators are independently wealthy before running for office. And I’m always surprised when political observers are surprised that this or that sitting or former governor doesn’t choose to “move up” to the Senate. It’s clearly a demotion.
Finally, being a Democrat running for Senate in a red state like Arizona or Kansas isn’t the same as running for governor. Senatorial campaigns are almost invariably nationalized and polarized, unlike gubernatorial campaigns where manifest executive abilities and state/local issue configurations can give Democrats in conservative areas a fighting chance.
So nobody should really be that astonished that even a screwed-up agency like DHS looked like an attractive challenge to the very competent Janet Napolitano, or that Kathleen Sebelius might prefer to play a role in an administration that could revolutionize the American system of health care. The alternatives really weren’t that seductive.

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