The term "red herring" has been around for hundreds of years. It specifically refers to taking a smoked (and therefore pungent) herring and dragging it across the trail of a fugitive, in order to throw off the scent of any tracking dogs in pursuit. The term's use has evolved (with the help of mystery writers everywhere) to now mean any intentional misdirection used to draw attention from other events or motives. And while I could be proven wildly mistaken, I think the whole "Secretary of State Hillary Clinton" circus will prove to be nothing more than a gigantic red herring. Something smells fishy about it, to stretch the metaphor a bit.
Basing my reasoning on absolutely no hard facts (which I fully admit up front), here's the scenario that keeps suggesting itself to my addled brain (and which, to my surprise, doesn't seem to have suggested itself to anyone else): during the discussions between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama (which took place between the end of the primary season and when she began campaigning for him), Hillary gets Barack to agree to this sideshow if he gets elected. She will be "offered" Secretary of State, which she will then decline "because there's so much to do in the Senate." But -- and here's the crux of my thinking -- she will gain by this situation by improving her prestige in the Senate and attaining more power than she normally would have (due to her low seniority status).
The first thing which made me suspicious about the whole story was the fact that it was such a big story. The day it broke in the media, some were saying she "had been offered" the position, some hedged their bets by saying things like "Clinton may have already been offered the job," and some reported (with more restraint) "Clinton is being considered for the job, but no decisions have been made, and no offer has been extended." Since then, the stories have been all over the map. In great detail. From the mainstream media to the nether regions of the blogosphere the story fascinates one and all. Intricacies of vetting are endlessly discussed, what Hillary Clinton is thinking is gone into in depth, and the eternal "what do we do about Bill?" questions are breathlessly asked.
Now, some of this is the press' continued fascination with all things Clinton, and Hillary is certainly newsworthy after her historic run for the Democratic nomination this year. But even so, you've got to ask yourself -- why is this the only story that has leaked in this fashion from the transition team? Obama has run an astoundingly leak-free campaign (and transition) from the beginning, and now they're leaking all over the place on a possible Clinton appointment? Some may chalk this up to the fact that Hillary's campaign was a heck of a lot leakier during the campaign, meaning the leaks in this story may be coming more from her direction than Obama's. But Obama's team hasn't done anything to quash any of these rumors, it should also be noted. Meaning they're OK with the leaks. But being OK with the leaks isn't the same thing as confirming that Hillary Clinton is their first choice, or that they've offered her the job.
The other interesting thing is that during the same time period that the Secretary of State rumors have been swirling, the Democrats met in Washington to select their new leadership positions for the upcoming year in Congress. Now, there is a time-honored procedure in the Senate of doling out plum committee assignments based upon seniority -- the length of time a senator has served. But Clinton is 35th in line for such assignments, which is pretty far back. Now, there are plenty of other Democratic senators who have more seniority but who also didn't just run for president. Hillary is reportedly frustrated that she is simultaneously seen as a "party leader" and yet also so far back in the seniority line. She may be looking to leverage her Secretary of State "offer" into a better place in this line. And, tellingly, Harry Reid seems to be on board with this effort.
I have to pause and explicitly state that nothing I've written here means in any way that I don't think Hillary Clinton would do a good job as Secretary of State. I think she could be a great Secretary of State, and I think she also has the potential to be a disastrous Secretary of State. I can honestly see it going either way. If I am completely wrong about the red herring scenario, and Obama does in fact announce she will be his Secretary of State, I will support her efforts to do well in the job (as I would for anyone so named). Past performance and water under the bridge are not the best indicators of how anyone would handle such an important responsibility, so I am fully ready to give any nominee the benefit of the doubt when they enter office.
But I can't help thinking the entire episode is designed to (1) give the media something to work themselves into a frenzy over (giving Obama more time and freedom to flesh out the rest of his cabinet), and (2) boost Hillary Clinton's stature on the national stage, and in the Senate itself.
If I am right, Hillary Clinton will be the one to hold a press conference -- and not Obama -- in the near future. She will say how honored she is to have been considered for the post, but that after reflection she has decided to continue serving the citizens of the great state of New York from her position in the Senate, where she thinks she will be more effective promoting Barack Obama's agenda and helping the new president get important legislation passed, and so is therefore asking Obama to remove her name for consideration.
This move will bolster her stature and reputation among her many fans and supporters. It will show that she is the one turning the offer down, leaving her supporters feeling good about (1) the fact that she was "offered" the job, (2) the fact that Hillary's power just seems to continue to grow, and (3) Barack Obama, for being gracious enough to allow her to make the choice about her own political future. It will almost completely remove any leftover sour grapes about the nomination race (and about the fact that Hillary was not offered the vice presidency before the convention as well).
It will succeed in improving Hillary's standing in the Senate, and it will also (with hindsight) have allowed Barack Obama to conduct the real vetting process for whoever ultimately gets the position -- without the blinding glare of the media's spotlight.
Meaning a win-win situation all around. Because while being offered Secretary of State is a great feather to have in your cap politically, the job would be somewhat of a dead-end for Clinton, should she accept it. She would serve for one term, then likely be replaced by someone in a second-term Obama administration, leaving her out in the cold after 2012. Unless Obama proves to be a disaster as president, Clinton would not challenge him for the presidency in 2012, and would have a hard time running for the Senate seat she abandoned in New York. Her political career would be in serious danger of being over at that point -- which, again, smells kind of fishy to me.
Which is why this whole Hillary media frenzy seems to me to be nothing more than a gigantic red herring. While the dogs of the media have dutifully gone haring after this story (baying loudly all the while), methinks there's another game afoot.
Cross-posted at The Huffington Post
-- Chris Weigant