Hillary and the Abe factor

I have thus far resisted playing the traditional post-election parlor game, which consists of speculating about which players will fill which key posts in a new administration. Aside from the fact that few citizens are losing sleep over whether (for instance) ex-Iowa governor Tom Vilsack becomes Secretary of Agriculture, the guesswork strikes me as a waste of time. The hot rumor du jour typically winds up looking about as substantive as a candy wrapper.

But still, all the reports this morning about Hillary Clinton being seriously considered for Secretary of State…somehow, these do seem worthy of serious attention, albeit in the speculative sense.

Various Obama advisers and transition team sources have reportedly confirmed to NBC and ABC that Hillary is a serious contender for the most high-profile foreign policy post. That confirmation, by itself, is noteworthy, because the Obama people are typically very tight-lipped; if they’re willingly leaking about Hillary, rest assured it’s because they have solid reasons for launching this trial balloon. It’s hard to imagine they’d want to publicly dangle such a prestigious job in front of their former rival, only to publicly yank it back at a time when Obama’s priority aim is to bind up the political wounds of 2008 – between the parties, and within his own.

Quite the contrary, Hillary’s appointment would signal a formal rapprochement between Team Obama and the House of Clinton, all in the interests of unity. Her appointment would also be a deft political move for Obama, who would probably benefit if she is removed from the political circuit. And, in terms of governance, Hillary could be an effective advocate on international human rights issues (one of her longstanding interests); moreover, she is universally known abroad, and widely respected. Plus, she’d have more clout as Secretary of State than as a member of the Senate, where she’s still low on the seniority scale.

And since we’re only speculating, here’s one other reason why the Hillary story feels real: The Abe Lincoln factor.

It’s well known that Obama is a Lincoln devotee. He says it himself; he quotes Lincoln frequently; he took care to announce his presidential run in Springfield, Illinois, home to Lincoln before the latter’s move to the White House. And he’s quite aware that Lincoln practiced unity by placing his former political opponents in the Cabinet.

Exhibit A: William Seward, who, as a seasoned senator from New York, was originally considered the frontrunner for the 1860 Republican nomination. Seward had far more government experience than Lincoln – the latter had served only a couple years in Washington, as a House member from Illinois – yet it was Lincoln who ultimately prevailed at the convention. As recounted so well by Doris Kearns Goodwin in Team of Rivals, Seward was shocked by his loss and persisted in his belief that the lesser candidate had won.

But the bigger shock was that Lincoln responded, after his election, by making his former chief rival Secretary of State.

Lincoln’s thinking was that he wanted the strongest possible people around him, regardless of past partisan strife. (The two men clashed repeatedly during the early months, but Seward would ultimately write of Lincoln that “his magnanimity is almost superhuman. The president is the best of us.”)

The Associated Press now reports that Obama met with his former rival in Chicago yesterday. So it’s quite possible that Obama is going for Abe 2.0…unless this is just another candy wrapper.

Not all conservatives and Republicans are nurturing the self-delusional belief that the party can recover from its ’08 debacle by becoming even more conservative. This week, I nominate two voices of sanity:

The runner-up is GOP pollster David Winston: “GOP campaign leaders and operatives once again adopted a base strategy, despite the fact that neither party can win without attracting key swing voters in the middle…Republican campaigns have got to get back to talking about issues that matter to people, and stop thinking they can win with tactical tools and negative attacks.”

Winston, a reality-based thinker, reeled off the stats gathered by exit pollsters in the House races nationwide: the GOP blew off the swing voters in the middle – losing big among self-identified independents and moderates, Catholics (the traditional swing-voting religious cohort), and married women with children. He also took note of the 29-point loss among voters under 30, which “ought to set off alarm bells for any Republican concerned about the future viability of the party.”

In fact, his critique would have been even harsher if he had mentioned Hispanics, the fastest-growing electoral constituency. It had long been Karl Rove’s ambition to woo Hispanics to the GOP – but, in this election, and clearly in response to the GOP's persistent immigrant-bashing, they favored Obama by 36 points (four years ago, they favored John Kerry by roughly 10), and were pivotal in delivering Obama the western states of Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico.

Which brings us to the Sanest Republican award-winner, Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, who said the other day: “We cannot be a majority governing party when we essentially cannot compete in the Northeast, we are losing our ability to compete in Great Lakes states, we cannot compete on the West Coast, we are increasingly in danger of competing in mid-Atlantic states, and the Democrats are now winning some of the western states…And similarly, we cannot compete, and prevail, as a majority governing party if we have a significant deficit with Hispanics, where we have a large deficit with African-American voters, where we have a large deficit with people of modest incomes and modest financial circumstances. Those are not factors for success going forward.”

The GOP can heed Pawlenty’s warning, and begin to modernize. Or they can toss it aside like a candy wrapper, and continue to lose.