“Settling” For Kerry?

It’s a bit of an irony that the long-time front-runner to become Secretary of State–and actually, the front-runner for the job in 2008 had not Hillary Clinton decided to take it–John Kerry, will now be inevitably perceived as someone Obama “settled” for after Susan Rice’s withdrawal from consideration. Aside from his political prominence, and his current position as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, this is the gig his entire career seems to have pointed towards. And particularly after the Republican freakout over Rice, the odds of his fellow-senators giving him an unusually hard time in the confirmation process are low (though Wingnut World will undoubtedly be full of talk about “global tests.”)

But how good a Secretary of State would he be? In a very positive assessment today, WaPo’s David Ignatius makes this observation:

While Kerry sometimes comes across as stiff, he’s surprisingly willing to challenge conventional wisdom, especially about engaging America’s adversaries. This unlikely contrarian streak would be an advantage, especially because it’s so well disguised: With his stolid demeanor, Kerry would find it easier to take diplomatic chances than other potential nominees, especially the younger, less experienced Rice.

Now as someone who was peripherally in his orbit during the 2004 campaign, I’m not very objective about Kerry, but I must say this particular Ignatius argument comports well with my own observations. When Kerry “went to school” on a topic–I observed this first-hand on climate change–he was an absolute sponge for new information and often sought out people spurned by the “experts.” He would not, of course, be setting U.S. Foreign Policy as Secretary of State, and in fact Susan Rice could wind up with greater influence if she is moved, as is considered possible, to the White House itself. But Kerry has the tools to be an outstanding Secretary of State, and perhaps the perception that he’s someone the president “settled for” may keep him as productively busy as his predecessor.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.