Can Clinton return secretary of state to presidential steppingstone?

Updated 12:08 PM EDT, Fri August 12, 2016

Story highlights

Hillary Clinton would be the first former secretary of state to become president since 1857

The position seems to have fallen out of favor as part of a would-be president's resume

Washington CNN —  

Hillary Clinton set a major historical milestone this election cycle.

She is, of course, the first female nominee of a major political party, and could become the nation’s first female president.

But that’s not where her trailblazing ends.

If Hillary Clinton wins in November, she will also be the first former secretary of state to take over the Oval Office since 1857. She would end a drought that would have been unimaginable in the early days of the American republic, when the position was considered a natural steppingstone to the presidency.

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Of the first eight US presidents, five – Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams and Martin Van Buren – went from the State Department to the White House. Another, James Buchanan, followed in 1857.

But since then, the position has fallen out of favor as a part of the resume for would-be presidents. Governors, vice presidents, legislators and even former military officers began to crowd America’s election field.

The reasons for this are varied, but many will sound familiar to those following the current election.

The office comes with baggage

For one thing, secretaries of state are closely tied to the foreign policy record of the administrations they serve, for better or worse.

“Any Cabinet officer or vice president simply has to defend the outgoing administration,” said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.

“You can’t have it both ways,” he added. “You can’t say, ‘Well, boy, isn’t it terrific that I served in this high office under the president?’ and then turn around and say, ‘Of course, all those mistakes he made, I had nothing to do with them.’ “

Clinton, who is banking on the support of President Barack Obama’s base, has embraced their connection and welcomed his endorsement with open arms.

But many of the same global crises that have nagged the Obama White House over the past eight years are being used as ammunition by Clinton’s opponents.

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Her push for greater intervention in Libya in 2011, the US “reset” in relations with Russia and the administration’s inability to secure a transition of power in Syria have all been thrown at her in debates and attack ads.

And then there’s her personal record heading the State Department. Two of the major attack lines employed by Republicans stem from that position: her use of a private email server for official Foggy Bottom business and her role in the deadly attacks on US facilities in Benghazi, Libya, under her watch.

Undeniable benefits

But the top diplomatic post also has its benefits, such as imparting undeniable foreign policy expertise, a high profile on the world stage and the experience of managing a behemoth bureaucracy.

“It is true people put the economy first when picking a president,” said CNN Presidential Historian Douglas Brinkley of Rice University. “But they also ask who would be a good foreign policy president, and if you have credentials like secretary of state, it has the ability to be a big perk.”

“The four-year service as secretary of state is a big plus for Clinton,” Sabato agreed. “It burnished the resume of a senator and first lady, because people want to know that you can handle international affairs.”

Then-Sen. Barack Obama himself had to campaign without such a credential, Sabato noted.

“That’s part of the job, and Obama had trouble overcoming that,” he said, referring to the President’s 2008 White House run, during which he visited several foreign countries in an effort to demonstrate his foreign policy knowledge to US voters.

A resume is not destiny

The last secretary of state to become president was Buchanan. His resume was rounded out by having been a lawyer, a congressman and an influential senator, but his single term in office is widely seen as one of the worst in US history.

Asked why there hasn’t been a secretary of state elected president in 160 years, Sabato quipped, “Buchanan may be one of the reasons why.”

Despite Buchanan’s vast experience, Sabato said, “He didn’t have the vision to help us avoid the Civil War, or the strength of character to do it.”

The last former secretary of state to even be nominated by his political party was James Blaine, who served under James Garfield until shortly after the latter was assassinated. After losing his bid in 1884, Blaine served as secretary of state a second time under Benjamin Harrison, then made a final unsuccessful bid for the White House in 1892.

Several former secretaries have run since – most recently Alexander Haig in 1988 – but none has made it as far as Blaine in the nominating process. Haig withdrew from the Republican primary field after performing poorly early in the primary process.

Other credentials can count for more

In the last 100 years, Americans have elected seven former governors, six former vice presidents, eight former members of Congress, one Army general and one Cabinet secretary – Herbert Hoover, who had previously served as commerce secretary.

In the last 30 years, voters have particularly favored former governors, including Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Obama was a senator before moving down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House.

“In the beginning of the American republic, when most of the secretaries of state served, the future existence of the country depended on diplomacy,” explained Sabato, “and so we put, at that time, special emphasis on being secretary of state, on having that diplomatic streak.”

“Now, while foreign affairs is very important, there are loads of ways to project strength and diplomacy,” he continued. “You can get it now in the Senate because most senators travel widely. Governors travel widely. Vice presidents travel widely. It’s a different world. It’s not just the secretary of state anymore.”

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But Brinkley suggested the recent trend also has to do with the kinds of people who are selected to fill Cabinet posts in the modern era.

“Sometimes people become secretary of state that are policy wonks but don’t know how to communicate large foreign policy initiatives to the public,” he said. “A George Shultz or a Dean Acheson or a George Marshall never wanted to get dirty and politic.”

If American voters gravitated toward foreign policy wonks, said Brinkley, “Everyone running for president would have Ph.D.s from Harvard in international affairs.”

“That’s not the kind of person Hillary Clinton is,” he added. “She came out of the political structure.”

A new ballgame in 2016

Polling in recent elections suggests voters don’t pick candidates based on their foreign policy positions. They are far more likely to list the economy as their driving issue when they head into the voting booth.

For example, a February Gallup Poll asked Americans which was the most important problem facing the United States. A combined 39% listed an economic issue as most important, compared to 7% for terrorism, 7% for national security and just 2% for foreign policy/foreign aid/focus overseas.

But according to Daniel Drezner, professor at Tufts’ Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, conventional wisdom may not apply to the current election cycle, in part because Clinton’s opponent holds foreign policy views that diverge from the norm within either party.

“You could argue that for most of modern presidential history, the gap between the major party candidates on foreign policy was never so great that it would necessarily be a pivotal factor in choosing a presidential candidate,” Drezner said. “Trump is so far out there on a variety of dimensions that it’s possible that voters will vote based on that.”