Matthew Yglesias tosses out a hypothetical:
One could imagine a world in which instead of serving as Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack was running for the US Senate seat currently held by Chuck Grassley. Vilsack would probably lose such a race, but one reason he would probably lose such a race is that Grassley could badly undercut his campaign by reaching an agreement with Senate Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus to produce a bipartisan health care reform bill.
Similarly, if Janet Napolitano were running for senate instead of serving as Secretary of Homeland Security that might be giving John McCain some incentive to deal.
This assumes, of course, that the citizens of Iowa and Arizona are prepared to punish Grassley and McCain for not supporting a universal health care bill. In reality, those senators are more likely to be punished for not opposing such a bill. Either way, Scott Lemieux goes even further:
I didn't understand why Obama was appointing viable Senate candidates at the time, and it looks even worse in retrospect. (Although the subsequent analysis doesn't apply in her case, one can also add Sebeius, who would have been at least a credible challenger for the soon-to-be vacant Senate seat in Kansas, and would likely have been more progressive than the typical red state senator to boot had she won.) If I understood the logic, Obama felt it was important to have ex-legislators in the cabinet to facilitate relations with Congress and help advance his agenda. Hence the failed Daschle nomination as well. But, as Matt says, I think that was misguided -- what matters is power, and a credible challenger means vastly more than having someone in the cabinet with some experience as a legislator.
Neither asks the obvious question: why in the hell would Vilsack or Napolitano run suicide campaigns against Grassley and McCain, who are two of the most entrenched senators in America? Grassley has served in the Senate since 1980, and has been in uninterrupted elected office since 1959. Every public opinion poll has shown Vilsack behind Grassley by significant margins. McCain won his last senatorial election with 77% of the vote, and since then was a presidential candidate who easily won his home state. These guys aren't vulnerable in the least, and any candidacy against them is not "viable".
Meanwhile, Napolitano was a sitting governor before accepting a cabinet post from Obama, while Vilsack had just left a governorship in favor of a (surely lucrative) partnership in a law firm. Why would either give up those positions for a doomed run against massively popular incumbent senators? They wouldn't, of course, because they are more concerned with their own political survival than scoring cheap points for Obama, so this whole discussion is completely moot. And Obama knew that, which is why he appointed them to cabinet positions in his administration. This is no mystery to political scientists even if it befuddles political pundits.
Ezra Klein gets close to realizing this, but then offers a weird solution:
This is one of those ways in which I don't understand the appointments process. I understand that given other career options, like an appointment to a Cabinet position, Tom Vilsack might not want to run against Chuck Grassley and Janet Napolitano might not want to take a shot at John McCain. Both of them could lose, and then they're unemployed and electorally tarnished. But the thing about an appointment is that the president can make it at any time. So why not just assure Tom Vilsack and Janet Napolitano that if they lose their elections they will be appointed secretary of agriculture and secretary of homeland security, respectively? Maybe they still don't want to run for Senate. But maybe then the president doesn't want to appoint them at all because they clearly don't care for his agenda all that much.
What does he mean? Obama would appoint them after the 2010 election but not before? Who would have held those cabinet posts for two years, and why would they step aside? Or does he mean that Obama should've appointed them, then let them ignore their jobs for a year while they campaigned for the Senate, and then let them return after they'd lost? Pardon me, but I was under the impression that Cabinet positions were important enough that they shouldn't sit vacant for long periods of time.
I understand that progressives are upset at the lack of movement on health care reform, so they've resorted to grasping at straws to vent their frustration. But advocating political seppuku for high-ranking Democrats in genuflection to Obama seems a bit extreme, no?