Kerry Prepares Next Act

Posted December 8, 2008 at 6:37pm

Only in Washington, D.C., could earning a plum job bring with it talk of disappointment and what might have been — and so it is for the Senate Foreign Relations chairman-in-waiting, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.).

Four years after falling 119,000 Ohio votes short of winning the presidency, Kerry was bypassed for secretary of State by President-elect Barack Obama, despite providing the incoming commander in chief crucial support in the heat of the Democratic White House primary.

Kerry’s consolation prize? That would be replacing as Foreign Relations chairman the Vice President-elect, Joseph Biden, whom the Massachusetts Democrat is in line to succeed based on Senate seniority. Democratic operatives who know Kerry acknowledge that taking the Foreign Relations gavel might not have the cache it would under a Republican president.

But they also insist that whatever initial disappointment Kerry harbored when it became clear that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) was going to be nominated to head the State Department, Kerry is now focused on his new assignment and helping Obama retool American foreign policy.

“He’s been preparing for it for a long time and will have a lot of influence,” said Steve Elmendorf, a Democratic strategist who served as deputy campaign manager for Kerry’s 2004 presidential bid.

“I think he’s going to be one of the key, if not the key person in the Senate [whom the Obama administration] will go to as they figure out their foreign policy agenda,” Elmendorf said.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) office, consistent with its decision not to comment on Senate committee assignments for the 111th Congress, would not discuss Kerry’s position on the Foreign Relations panel next year. Kerry’s office declined to comment directly but did release a statement that seemed to confirm that the Senator is poised to assume command of the committee.

“John Kerry has made a mark on foreign policy and looks forward to continuing to lead,” Kerry’s press secretary, Whitney Smith, said as part of lengthy statement relaying the Senator’s history in foreign policy and his passion for the work.

Privately, there is little doubt among Senate observers that Kerry will take over Foreign Relations in January. The view from within the Senate Democratic Conference is that Kerry is well-suited for the job and more than prepared.

What is debatable is the level of angst the veteran Massachusetts Senator feels after absorbing a couple of tough career blows over the past four years, beginning with his 2004 White House loss to President George W. Bush and recently with his failure to secure the secretary of State post.

Kerry lost the crucial state of Ohio by a mere 2 points (51 percent to 49 percent.) In the aftermath of that defeat, rank-and-file Democrats savaged the Senator, blaming him for what many described as a poorly run race, not to mention the Democratic Party’s other electoral ills during that election cycle.

Kerry appeared to gain a measure of stature this year with his timely endorsement of Obama over Clinton when the Democratic presidential nomination was still in doubt. Many insiders believed Kerry made his primary campaign choice with an eye toward something bigger — perhaps a Cabinet post.

But as it turned out, Kerry’s New York colleague — previously the president-elect’s rival — won the nod for his dream job.

“I know for a fact that he was pushing hard for the secretary of State position,” said one Washington-based Democratic operative who has followed Kerry’s career. “I don’t know how he feels about taking over Foreign Relations. I have to assume it’s a letdown because it’s not the same as when you have a president of the other party in the White House.”

Disappointment? Maybe. Despair? No, at least according to others who are tied to Kerry.

A second D.C.-based Democratic operative conceded that Kerry’s loss to Clinton for secretary of State was a blow of sorts. But this operative said chairing Foreign Relations is far from simply a consolation prize for Kerry.

Particularly because his White House loss was so devastating, having to settle for a high-profile committee chairmanship is much easier to deal with than when he returned to Capitol Hill four years ago as nothing more than the junior Senator from Massachusetts.

This Democratic operative predicts that Kerry will make good use of his new role. In fact, since the 2004 election, Kerry has worked hard as a member of the Foreign Relations panel, focusing on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

“I guarantee you that John Kerry is not going to be keen on just being a mouthpiece for the administration,” this individual said. “It does pose some challenges for Obama and Clinton.”

Kerry won a fifth term in November, easily defeating nominal Republican opposition in a solidly Democratic state.

Serving as Foreign Relations chairman is clearly among the goals that Kerry, a Vietnam veteran and son of a diplomat, worked for during his Senate tenure. Kerry’s first taste of the panel came in 1971, when he testified as a Navy veteran about his experiences in Vietnam.

Under different circumstances, this pending appointment would have been described as the pinnacle of Kerry’s quarter-century Capitol Hill career. Some who know Kerry posit that it still could be.

A Democratic strategist who follows the Senate and is familiar with Kerry predicted that the Senator’s endorsement of Obama in the presidential race might yet pay dividends. This individual said Kerry was held in high regard by Obama’s presidential campaign, explaining that the respect Kerry commanded as a campaign surrogate could foreshadow the relationship he will have with Obama moving forward.

“I think the Obama administration will hold him in high esteem,” the Democratic strategist said. “I think he’s going to dive right into the Foreign Relations Committee.”