Politics & Policy

Secretary McCain

This would be a change.

President-Elect Barack Obama said during the campaign that just ended that he would appoint Republicans to his Cabinet. His purpose in making such a commitment is to demonstrate his intent to unite the country behind his leadership. The names of the usual suspects — Chuck Hagel, Chuck Hagel, and Chuck Hagel — have been thrown around.  But truly making a statement of unity will take rather more than putting in his Cabinet an obscure senator not held in particularly high esteem among Republicans. Here’s something bolder and much more meaningful: Ask John McCain to be the next secretary of Defense.

#ad#Crazy, of course. The Democrat base will never go for it. McCain’s views on the war in Iraq are too divergent from Obama’s. Here’s one response to all that: So what? Obama has just won a contest no one believed he would even contend for, because he saw that it was possible to topple Senator Hillary Clinton, the all-but-inevitable nominee of his own party. Throughout this campaign, he has proven himself one of the great gamblers in modern politics. He has earned the right to keep his chips on his own number and let it ride a while. In other words, the Democrat base — and the Democrat Congress that just got larger thanks to him — owes him their gratitude and support, not the other way around.

As a matter of fact, though, Senator McCain’s views on the Iraq conflict are almost not relevant any longer. The Bush administration has all but reached agreement with the Iraqi government for the eventual withdrawal of U.S. troops according to a timetable based on continued success. That is more or less Obama’s position. Whatever that agreement looks like, Obama now owns that conflict just as surely as President Bush has done heretofore. Should conditions worsen, the Obama administration will be in no position to cut and run and would likely not choose to do so anyway. At such a point, McCain’s robust views on the use of force would likely be welcome.

As regards the conflict in Afghanistan, there is essentially no distinction between the Obama and McCain positions. Each favors continued development of Afghan forces, continued support of those forces by the U.S. and NATO, and the continued pressure on Pakistan to help where it can.

Both Obama and McCain campaigned on reducing waste and inefficiency in Pentagon spending. Whoever ends up running the Department will find that is much easier said than defined and accomplished, but Sen. McCain has the bona fides to give it a go.

Quite apart from any of these relatively manageable issues, though, there is a more compelling reason for President-Elect Obama to form an explicit unity government. A substantial number of Americans have doubts about him as a leader. Poll after poll shows that about half of all voters still think he lacks the experience to be president. There also is anxiety among the half of the electorate that did not support him that the new President will be led astray by Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid. This is an unsavory thought to those who may be willing to give Obama the benefit of the doubt, but who have no doubts about just how out of step are Pelosi and Reid.

These are unusual times; President-Elect Obama himself has characterized America as historically divided. That may not be, but if he believes it he will want to do all he can to address it. Reaching across the great divide and bringing the candidate of America’s losing half onto his team would be unthinkable to most winning presidential candidates. But the unthinkable is what this remarkable politician appears to like doing.

 – Lawrence Di Rita was special assistant to the secretary of defense from 2001-2006.

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