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 TrumpComey: Barr is 'sliming his own department' GOP Mueller critic says Flynn contacted him during special counsel probe: report Acting DHS secretary threatened to quit after clashing with Miller: report 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 SessionsChris Wallace: AG Barr 'clearly is protecting' Trump Appeals court rules Trump end of DACA was unlawful Roy Moore wants judge who ruled against him removed from case MORE and Nikki HaleyNimrata (Nikki) HaleyWill Trump ignore the Constitution and stay in White House beyond his term? Trump taps ex-State spokeswoman Heather Nauert to help oversee White House fellowships Conservatives slam Omar over tweet on Gaza violence 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 SebeliusKansas Senate race splits wide open without Pompeo Is a presidential appointment worth the risk? New Dem Kansas gov reinstates protections for LGBT state employees 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 ZinkeInterior's border surge puts more officers in unfamiliar role Not 'if' but 'when' is the next Deepwater Horizon spill? Former Wyoming GOP lawmaker mulling Senate bid to replace Enzi MORE and Tom PriceThomas (Tom) Edmunds PriceOvernight Health Care: CEO of largest private health insurer slams 'Medicare for All' plans | Dem bill targets youth tobacco use | CVS fined over fake painkiller prescriptions | Trump, first lady to discuss opioid crisis at summit HHS inspector general stepping down from watchdog role Ex-GOP lawmaker Handel to run for her former Georgia seat in 2020 MORE left Congress, and Reince PriebusReinhold (Reince) Richard PriebusMueller didn't want Comey memos released out of fear Trump, others would change stories Forget the spin: Five unrefuted Mueller Report revelations Dems plot aggressive post-Mueller moves, beginning with McGahn 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 ShulkinTrump sent policy pitch from Mar-a-Lago member to VA secretary: report Is a presidential appointment worth the risk? It’s time to end the scare tactics and get to work for our veterans 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 CoatsHillicon Valley: Facebook co-founder calls for breaking up company | Facebook pushes back | Experts study 2020 candidates to offset 'deepfake' threat | FCC votes to block China Mobile | Groups, lawmakers accuse Amazon of violating children's privacy Experts are studying mannerisms of 2020 candidates to help offset threat of 'deepfake' videos Bolton held unexpected meeting on Iran with top intel, military advisers at CIA: report 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 CornynTrump's immigration push faces Capitol Hill buzzsaw The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Pass USMCA Coalition - Restrictive state abortion laws ignite fiery 2020 debate Sinema, Gallagher fastest lawmakers in charity race 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 ObamaSeveral factors have hindered 'next up' presidential candidates in recent years Lewandowski: Why Joe Biden won't make it to the White House — again The Hill's 12:30 Report: Tough questions await Trump immigration plan 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.