When it comes to defense secretaries, the Democratic Party lacks a deep bench.
President-elect Barrack Obama last week became the second consecutive Democratic commander in chief to tap a Republican to run the Pentagon. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, President Bush’s defense chief since 2006, said his appointment is "open-ended."
The pick means a Republican will have run the world’s mightiest military and biggest arms budget for more than a decade, despite the election of two Democratic presidents during that time.
President Clinton picked Republican Sen. William Cohen as his second-term defense secretary. Cohen then passed the mantel to Donald Rumsfeld, a former Republican congressman and long a member of the GOP national security network. He was followed by Gates, who said at press conference Dec. 2 that he is a Republican.
Gates’ tenure means a Republican has guided the Pentagon for all but five of the past 27 years, going back to Ronald Reagan’s appointment of Caspar Weinberger in 1981. The five years encompass the tenures of Democrats Les Aspin and William Perry, who gave way to Cohen in 1997.
And for only one of those 27 years did a true Democratic politician steeped in Washington ways run the place. That was Aspin, who was fired after one year for general ineptitude. He was replaced by Perry, a soft-spoken non-politician technocrat from California.
The lack of a true-blue Democrat running the globe’s largest office building raises the question of why Democrats turn to Republicans for one of the “plummiest” jobs in a presidential Cabinet, eclipsed only perhaps by Secretary of State?
Looking down the Democratic bench today, many lawmakers focused on national security are simply too liberal to win the support of the military rank in file. This was illustrated in 1996, when Clinton failed to attract Sam Nunn, the one conservative Democrat star on defense, and went to the Republican bench to tap William Cohen.
"I think part of the problem is that many of the Democrats coming up were heavily influenced by the Clinton administration’s proclivity to see the military as a laboratory for social experiments," said James Phillips, a national security analyst at the Heritage Foundation. "After September 11, I think there is a different attitude toward the military and its proper role."
Phillips added, "President-elect Obama may have been influenced by the disastrous experience with Les Aspin. But he is mostly motivated by political considerations and the advantage of carrying over a GOP defense secretary. It insulates him from potential political criticism on the rate of withdrawal from Iraq and the broader conduct of the war on terrorism."
Lawrence Korb, an analyst at the Center for America Progress and a military adviser to the Obama campaign, said the president-elect had always planned on a "bipartisan national security policy."
"With Gates, yes he is a Republican," Korb said. "But he was also a public servant before he was a Republican. You want to be bipartisan in terms of the Iraq and Afghanistan war. You want continuity. You get a lot of things by keeping Gates on. You get continuity in the midst of two wars and you get someone who is respected by Congress and the military services."
Douglas Feith, the top policy maker in the Rumsfeld Pentagon, told HUMAN EVENTS, "It doesn’t necessarily signify a weak bench. It may better be explained as an effort at bipartisanship in an area where the Democrats are often considered less strong than the Republicans."
Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney, a Fox News Channel analyst, sees realpolitik.
"In this case they want to have continuity as they think they are going to get hit big time by terrorists and Republicans cannot blame Democrats," he said.
Obama is sticking with a defense secretary who disagrees with him on the most important national security question facing the new president: when and how to withdraw 148,000 American troops from Iraq. Obama’s campaign position — one that helped him sway liberals to win the Democratic nomination — is to pull out all combat units in 16 months.
Gates appears to have convinced his new boss to eventually abandon that position.
"I think that I would subscribe to what the president-elect said yesterday in Chicago," Gates said at a Dec. 2 press conference. "He repeated his desire to try and get our combat forces out within 16 months. But he also said that he wanted to have a responsible drawdown, and he also said that he was prepared to listen to his commanders."