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Presidents as senators

Presidents as senators

Posted: Friday, December 12, 2008 9:47 pm
By: Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift

 By DOUGLAS COHN and ELEANOR CLIFT WASHINGTON – President Clinton says he’s not interested in replacing his wife as the junior senator from New York, but then again, Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., expressed disinterest in the job of Secretary of State when the idea was first floated. In an interview the former president gave this week while overseas, he said Hillary was disbelieving to the point of being “shocked” when she read speculation in the newspaper that the president-elect was considering her for the plum position of the nation’s top diplomat. Humility is not one of Bill Clinton’s attributes so he probably isn’t surprised that he heads the list of high-powered names mentioned as his wife’s successor. He would be an excellent choice if he makes the cut. Indeed, let’s go one step further and say that every former president should get an automatic seat in the U.S. Senate. This may not be an opportune time to advance that notion given the nation’s collective wish as expressed in the polls, and in the election, to dispatch President Bush and his brand of divisive politics as soon as constitutionally possible. If the Clinton roles were reversed and he was plucked for the Cabinet while she was heading a global foundation, she would be a natural choice to serve in her husband’s stead. What makes this unique of course is that Bill Clinton is a former president, and only once (or maybe twice, if you count John Tyler serving in the Confederate Senate) has a former president entered the legislative branch after leaving the White House. Former President John Quincy Adams spent 14 years in the House, where he earned a reputation as a serious and effective legislator, capping his career. Clinton would certainly raise the level of debate in the Senate if he picked up where his wife left off. There are few politicians as gifted as Bill Clinton when it comes to synthesizing complex problems and explaining them to the voters. The challenge for him would be adapting to the rigid seniority system that governs life in the Senate. He would be junior to just about every other senator in the 100-person body, which means sitting at the end of a long dais and waiting his turn to speak while the others drone on. There would be little likelihood of his chairing a committee before he turns 70, a fact of Senate life Hillary surely factored in when she decided to accept Obama’s offer of a Cabinet position. After eight years, Hillary was no closer than fifth in line to chair any of the committees she served on. For Bill Clinton to re-enter public service would mean further constraints on his role as a global entrepreneur and philanthropist. The Clinton Global Initiative and Foundation sponsor projects around the world and can have a greater immediate impact on issues Clinton cares about than he could as another voice in a Senate debate. Still, for Clinton who loves the game of politics, the temptation of a second career in the halls of Congress must be alluring. And if that’s not offered, or it’s declined, perhaps the prospect alone will prompt serious discussion about giving presidents a voice in the great debates of the future as senators-at-large representing the entire nation. Even Bush, as disparaged as he is, would have something to add. After eight years, he’s learned some lessons. At the very least, if a future president proposes going to war, Bush and Bill Clinton presumably would do what Hillary Clinton didn’t do when she was in the Senate, and that is read the classified National Intelligence Estimate that cast doubt on whether Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. On such judgments the course of history rests. Published in The Messenger 12.12.08

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