Cultivate the next generation of leadership: Almost uniquely among established democracies, a cabinet post in the United States can be more of a political grave than a cradle for leaders. No cabinet official has gone on to become president in nearly 85 years, and few have run. Yet the experience gained running an executive department and learning the ways of Washington offers great expertise for future presidential candidates. It may be Hillary Rodham Clinton who breaks this trend in 2016, drawing in no small part on her experience as secretary of state.
And that raises the questions: Why has it been so long since a former cabinet member became President? Why do so few cabinet members run for President? It does often seem that a primary is limited to Governors, Senators and the occasional extraordinary (or desperate for attention) Congressman. But it’s easy to figure out why cabinet members don’t seek the nomination very often.
If the President is popular, it requires running against the Vice-President, who is typically a heavy favorite. If the President is unpopular, the party is probably going to lose the General election. And it’s not going to be an advantage among primary voters to have worked in that administration. If the President is of the other party, it’s especially unhelpful in the primary. Ray LaHood is not likely to be the Republican party’s next presidential nominee.
Cabinet members tend to be older. It’s an office often held after service as governor or senator. John Kerry and Chuck Hagel are two men in their late sixties who have just been chosen for top posts in the Obama administration. For any cabinet member who hadn’t served in elected office before, there is a question of whether the presidential bid is really a good place to start campaigning, even if it worked for Taft and Hoover.
There are also 15 cabinet members, as opposed to 50 Governors, 100 Senators and 435 Congressmen. There are simply more of the other guys to run for higher office.
In some cases, they may have the talent to serve as administrators, but not as national nominees. And they recognize that about themselves. Cabinet members tend to be sober and serious, so they’re less likely to make doomed bids for President. These are often the qualities which explain their nomination to the position. So they’ll have greater self-awareness than Michelle Bachmann and Chris Dodd. They’re also more likely to be involved in national controversies. See Janet Reno and Elian Gonzalez.
And it could just be a matter of luck. Clinton was the last successful two-term President, and no one from his administration ran in the 2004 Democratic primary. However, Bill Richardson, his Secretary of Energy, ran in 2008 with additional service as Governor of New Mexico under his belt. 1996 Republican nominees included former Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander. The 1988 candidates included former Secretary of State Alexander Haig. And two members of the George HW Bush administration were selected as later Vice-Presidential candidates: HUD Secretary Jack Kemp in 1996, and Defense Secretary Dick Cheney in 2000.
The current consensus is that if Hillary Clinton wants it, the Democratic party’s presidential nomination is hers. So she could bring an end to the perception that the presidential cabinet is where presidential careers go to die. As could Andrew Cuomo, who served as HUD Secretary in the Clinton administration.