Is a presidential appointment worth the risk?

Seated just across the aisle from the Supreme Court justices at last week’s State of the Union were the members of President TrumpDonald John TrumpEsper sidesteps question on whether he aligns more with Mattis or Trump Warren embraces Thiel label: 'Good' As tensions escalate, US must intensify pressure on Iran and the IAEA MORE’s Cabinet. As the headlines were quick to tell us, the Cabinet experienced a remarkable degree of turnover in the past year. The list of the recently departed, of course, includes Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsPress: Acosta, latest to walk the plank The Hill's Morning Report — Trump retreats on census citizenship question Alabama senator says Trump opposed to Sessions Senate bid MORE and Nikki HaleyNimrata (Nikki) HaleyAmerican women can have it all State denies report ex-spokeswoman received Fox salary while in administration Trump rules out Haley joining 2020 ticket MORE. While much of the focus has been on seeking to understand the nature of the disagreements that caused the fall-outs, perhaps a more fundamental question remains: Should governors and senators have left prestigious and important political roles to become presidential appointees in the first place?

From Kathleen SebeliusKathleen SebeliusFederal investigators concluded Ryan Zinke's MAGA socks violated Hatch Act Kansas Senate race splits wide open without Pompeo Is a presidential appointment worth the risk? MORE’s departure as governor of Kansas to take the helm of Department of Health and Human Services to Janet Napolitano’s resignation halfway through her second term as governor of Arizona in favor of heading Homeland Security during the Obama administration, many leaders have elected to head to Washington. Although the conventional wisdom is that this might be a promotion of sorts, a stepping stone to national (or even presidential) politics, the rewards might not jump off the page, particularly today, given the revolving door of turnover in the Trump administration. 

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Nikki Haley left being governor of South Carolina to become ambassador to the United Nations. Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkePress: Acosta, latest to walk the plank Senior Trump administration official to leave post next week 2020 Democrats vow to get tough on lobbyists MORE and Tom PriceThomas (Tom) Edmunds PricePress: Acosta, latest to walk the plank 'I alone can fix it,' Trump said, but has he? Chaotic Trump transition leaks: Debates must tackle how Democrats will govern differently MORE left Congress, and Reince PriebusReinhold (Reince) Richard PriebusPress: Acosta, latest to walk the plank Author: Paul Ryan saw retirement as an 'escape hatch' from Trump Overnight Defense: Inside the 3B House defense policy bill | Senators take new tack to challenge Saudi arms sales | Raytheon, United Technologies to merge MORE traded his fortunes at the RNC to help lead the Trump White House. Today, they are all out of a political job entirely.

Perhaps most striking of all is the unfortunate fall of Jeff Sessions. Ending his 20-year career in the Senate to join the Trump administration, Sessions would face incessant jabs from his boss, a forced resignation, and later express skepticism about whether he would return to politics again in any capacity. 

It makes perfect sense for David ShulkinDavid Jonathon ShulkinPress: Acosta, latest to walk the plank Senior Trump administration official to leave post next week Trump sent policy pitch from Mar-a-Lago member to VA secretary: report MORE to have accepted a promotion from undersecretary of Veterans Affairs for Health to the main job. It was probably perfectly reasonable for former Indiana Senator Dan CoatsDaniel (Dan) Ray CoatsThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by JUUL Labs - Trump attack on progressive Dems draws sharp rebuke A brief timeline of Trump's clashes with intelligence director Dan Coats Chuck Todd on administration vacancies: 'Is this any way to run a government?' MORE to return to the political spotlight and take the job of director of national intelligence. But if you’re Jeff Sessions or Nikki Haley, does it make sense to give up your job to enter the unstable land of presidential appointments? Perhaps this is what John CornynJohn CornynGOP put on the back foot by Trump's race storm GOP struggles to find backup plan for avoiding debt default Trump nominees meet fiercest opposition from Warren, Sanders, Gillibrand MORE (R-Texas) was thinking when he balked at vacating his Senate seat to become FBI director.

The idea of moving up in politics is almost taken for granted. Look no further than George H.W. Bush’s famous 1969 visit to see former president Lyndon Johnson. Then-Congressman Bush shared with President Johnson his plans to trade his House seat for a Senate bid. President Johnson replied that both were honorable places to serve one’s country, but the difference between the Senate and the House was the same as the difference between chicken salad and chicken you-know-what

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Although we might be tempted to view, say, Nikki Haley’s stop at U.N. ambassador as part of her journey toward a possible presidential campaign, most of our recent presidents and vice presidents did not, in fact, do time in the executive branch. Donald Trump, Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaJesse Jackson calls on Trump to pardon Rod Blagojevich #ObamaWasBetterAt trends after Trump attacks on minority congresswomen Biden says his presidency is not 'a third term of Obama' MORE, George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter — none of them served as presidential appointees prior to being elected president. Perhaps it’s what Bill Richardson meant in a 2008 Democratic primary debate when he said: “We elect governors as president.”

When it comes to George H.W. Bush, one recent president who served in a number of appointed roles, there is often a tendency to see his stop at director of central intelligence, for instance, as a natural resume-builder for his eventual election to president. But, we forget, that at the time, Bush’s appointment to head CIA was a conscious ploy orchestrated by his rival, Donald Rumsfeld, to sideline Bush from presidential politics. CIA director was considered a dead end, not a pathway to the Oval Office.

One can understand why an elected official might head to D.C. — George H.W. Bush, for example, when nominated to head the RNC by President Nixon told his wife that "You can't turn a president down." Others might find that they’ve done all they can at their current position and that the time has come to contribute elsewhere. Then, of course, there’s that idea of stepping up to the national stage. With that said, however, there does seem something curious about giving up the job the people of one’s state elected one to do, particularly when the benefits of a presidential appointment might be — at best, a change of pace — and at worst, a white elephant.

Erich J. Prince co-founded and runs Merion West (@merionwest), a Philadelphia-based group promoting civil discourse in the age of polarization; he also writes a weekly column at MediaVillage on how the news media covers politics. He previously served as a communications strategist for former North Carolina governor Pat McCrory. He studied political science at Yale.