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Clearing the Bench: The Perils of Appointing Politicians to the Cabinet

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 December 2023

JONATHAN SPIEGLER
Affiliation:
Michigan State University
JACOB F. H. SMITH
Affiliation:
Fordham University
AIDAN LOVELY
Affiliation:
Duke University

Abstract

This article provides an analysis of the potential danger to a president’s policy agenda that comes from appointing a sitting elected official to the cabinet. We present historical data on cabinet secretaries since the founding and demonstrate that concerns about seats falling to the other party following the appointment of an elected official to the cabinet date back at least to Martin Van Buren’s establishment of the first American mass political party in 1828. We then focus on the post-Seventeenth Amendment cabinet and show that almost 30 percent of cabinet secretaries in this era who were elected officials at the time of their appointment left seats that flipped to the other party by the next regular general election. We conclude by discussing how our results compare with Alexander Hamilton, Martin Van Buren, and Woodrow Wilson’s differing views on the cabinet and the implications for the president’s policy agenda.

Type
Article
Copyright
© Donald Critchlow and Cambridge University Press, 2023

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Footnotes

We would like to thank John Elliott, Matt Caverly, John Fortier, John Aldrich, Simon Hoellerbauer, Ian Ostrander, Michele Hoyman, attendees at the 2017 Northeastern Political Science Association, and reviewers and editors for helpful feedback on our paper. We would also like to thank Michael Dawson and J. Miles Coleman for help in locating some of the data we collected.

References

NOTES

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50. One could argue that presidents might choose to appoint elected officials because they are unpopular/embattled and are therefore unlikely to win their next election. However, this seems unlikely because we see no evidence to suggest that presidents are nominating unpopular politicians to Cabinet-level positions. It could be they are appointing them to other positions, but we do not investigate that here.

52. Borrelli, The President’s Cabinet, 2002.

53. Borrelli, The President’s Cabinet, 2002.

54. Gelman and King, “Estimating the Incumbency Advantage.”

55. This is similar to the phenomenon of “surge and decline”; see Campbell, Angus, “Surge and Decline: A Study in Electoral Change,” Public Opinion Quarterly 24, no.3 (1960): 397418 Google Scholar.

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59. We do not consider nonpartisan offices because the concept of seats flipping to the other party does not apply to these offices.

60. Most of the data on Cabinet secretaries through President Barack Obama’s first administration come from the Encyclopedia of the United States Cabinet by Mark Grossman. For Obama’s second term through Joe Biden’s first term, we make use of contemporary journal articles and sources. For vote share, we use a combination of sources, primarily CQ Voting and Elections Collection, Michael Dubin’s Guide to House Elections, the Political Graveyard, and Our Campaigns. In the next section, we report our findings from the historical data we collected.

61. See Grossman, Encyclopedia of the United States Cabinet; Alan D. Dean and Mark Grossman, Encyclopedia of the United States Cabinet: 1789-2019, 3rd ed. (New York: Grey House Publishing, Inc., 2019).

62. Aldrich, John H., Why Parties: A Second Look (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 72 Google Scholar.

63. Aldrich, “Why Parties,” 99.

64. Additionally, Washington appointed Maryland State Senator James McHenry to his Cabinet; however, at this point in history, Maryland State Senators were indirectly elected through a kind of electoral college, see Maryland Manual On-line. “Senate,” https://msa.maryland.gov/msa/mdmanual/05sen/html/senf.html.

65. Election data from Michael Dubin’s official congressional election results, https://www.ourcampaigns.com/RaceDetail.html?RaceID=282235.

66. List of Virginia State Delegates from 1795 session, https://llmc-com.proxy.lib.duke.edu/docDisplay5.aspx?set=99953&volume=1795&part=114l; List of all delegates, https://history.house.virginia.gov/members?session=92/. According to the Virginia Constitution, elections took place annually in October (see http://vagovernmentmatters.org/archive/files/draftvaconstitution1776_0be98353c9.pdf).

67. Connecticut State Register and Manual, Green’s Almanack and Register, for the State of Connecticut for the Year of our Lord, 1802, https://collections.ctdigitalarchive.org/islandora/object/30002%3A21905483#page/46/mode/2up; Connecticut State Register and Manual, Green’s Almanack and Register, for the State of Connecticut for the Year of our Lord, 1803, https://collections.ctdigitalarchive.org/islandora/object/30002%3A21905788#page/46/mode/2up.

68. United States Attorney’s Office, District of Connecticut, “About the Office,” https://www.justice.gov/usao-ct/office.

69. Aldrich, “Why Parties,” 279.

70. Find a Grave, “James Clark,” https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/19299462/james-clark.

71. Similarly, the governorship of Virginia was selected by state legislators in this era when James Madison selected James Monroe to be his Secretary of State; see Our Campaigns, “VA Governor,” https://www.ourcampaigns.com/RaceDetail.html?RaceID=715406.

72. The White House, “John Tyler: The 10th President of the United States,” https://www.whitehouse.gov/about-the-white-house/presidents/john-tyler/.

74. Brookings Institution, Vital Statistics on Congress, https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/vitalstats_ch2_tbl2.pdf.

75. Mayhew, David, “Congressional Elections: The Case of the Vanishing Marginals,” Polity 6, no.3 (1974): 295317 Google Scholar.

76. Elizabeth Dole, later elected to the U.S. Senate from North Carolina, served in different Cabinet positions in the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations that required separate confirmation processes so is counted twice here.

77. Lyft (blog), “Anthony Foxx, Secretary of Transportation under President Obama, Joins Lyft,” Lyft, October 9, 2018, https://www.lyft.com/blog/posts/anthony-foxx-secretary-of-transportation-under-president-obama-joins-lyft; Cillizza, Chris, “Why the 2020 Senate Map Looks Better Than It Actually Is for Democrats,” CNN, May 14, 2019, https://www.cnn.com/2019/05/14/politics/senate-2020-mcconnell/index.html.

78. Eric Levitz, “How John McCain’s Death Will Reshape the Senate,” New York Magazine, August 27, 2018, http://nymag.com/intelligencer/2018/08/how-john-mccains-death-will-reshape-the-senate.html.

79. Randal Archibold, “Arizona Enacts Stringent Law on Immigration,” New York Times, April 23, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/24/us/politics/24immig.html.

80. Goldman, Russell, “John McCain Border Shift: ‘Complete Danged Fence,’” ABC News, May 11, 2010, https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/john-mccain-immigration-reversal-complete-danged-fence/story?id=10616090.

81. Woodrow Wilson, The Public Papers of Woodrow Wilson, 222.

82. Vanessa Romo, “Biden: It Would Be ‘Difficult to Lose Sanders, Warren from Senate for Cabinet,” NPR, November 24, 2020, https://www.npr.org/sections/biden-transition-updates/2020/11/24/938713150/biden-says-it-would-be-difficult-to-lose-sanders-or-warren-from-senate-for-admin.