Why is the Cabinet such a deadend to Presidential ambitions?

You’d think, wouldn’t you, that running the department of State or Defense (competently) would be a clear sign of some executive ability. But I don’t think a Cabinet official since William Jennings Bryan’s day has been offered as a real candidate for the Presidency. Why is that?

These days, the only viable positions one can hold are the Vice-Presidency, the Governorship of some state, or a position in Congress. I understand that there’s some small virtue in being tested by the electoral process, but certainly a Cabinet position also subjects you to tests and public exposure. Why do you suppose that it’s not more common for Cabinet members to run for the Presidency?

It’s all about how many votes you bring to the table. Cabinet officials don’t have constituencies, but Governors (and often to a lesser extent, Senators) do.

Hoover was the last to win the office out of the Cabinet (Commerce Sec’y) - and his record of success may have helped create the “tradition”? There have been a number of other former Cabinet officers who’ve run in the primaries over the years, but, as you note, not with respectable results.

Not nearly to the extent that an elected officer does. Their accountability is to the elected executive at whose “pleasure” they serve, not to the people directly. If they try to be too independent of their bosses, they can get fired immediately, without waiting for the next election and without the opportunity to get a new mandate that way, or else they’re just shunted aside. If they’re notably successful, their President gets the credit, and if they’re notable failures or even mediocrities, they don’t have electoral credibility of their own because of it.

The Senate and Governorships have certain clear disadvantages as well. Kerry’s just now paying the price for having a record of voting on several hundred bills over the years–one’s positions sometimes change over the years, or the issues do, or the bills are worded differently in subtle ways, and you get stuck defending your flips-flops, which are a part of any legislator’s record. Governors sometimes take positions to please their consitituencies (I.e., Pataki on abortion or gun control) that don’t fly as well with the national party or the nation as a whole–yet they get away with the inconveniences their position creates for them. Why is the disadvantage created by the Cabinet an insuperable one?

One item that doesn’t help matters is the fact that most members of the Cabinet have never served in elective office.

Let’s look at the current Cabinet.

In it, the Secretaries of Agriculture, Commerce, Education, Housing and Urban Development, Labor, State, Treasury, and Veterans Affairs are all people who have never held elective office.

The Secretary of Defense has never run for any office other than a House seat in the Chicago suburbs, and the last time he did that was in 1968.

The Secretary of Energy and the Attorney-General both lost their re-election bids to the Senate before entering the Cabinet.

The Secretary of the Interior hasn’t held an elective office higher than Attorney-General of Colorado.

The Secretary of Transportation hasn’t held elective office since 1995.

That leaves two members of the Cabinet who were holding elective office when they entered the Cabinet: the Secretaries of Health and Human Services and Homeland Security.

I’d add having been a four-star general to this list, given the example of Eisenhower, and that Colin Powell could’ve had a very strong bid in 2000, before he was made Bush’s Secretary of State, and that Wesley Clarke could’ve been a contender.

Eisenhower wasn’t a four-star general, he was a five-star general.

Ike was indeed a four-star general before he was promoted to General of the Army. But I think your point is well taken.

As for Hoover having been the last Presidential candidate to come out of the Cabinet, this is true for the major parties (though FDR, like TR, had been Assistant Secretary of the Navy, not a cabinet level seat but, working with Josephus Daniels, he carried much of the burden of running the Navy). However, Henry Wallace, who ran as the Progressive candidate in 1948 and polled over a million votes, was Secretary of Agriculture before and IIRC after his 1941-45 Vice-Presidency.

FDR is not a good example - he was Governor of New York when elected President. Henry Wallace’s, um, credibility as a Presidential candidate certainly came more from his VP background than from his Cabinet post, too.

*All * Presidents elected in the last 40 years have made it there via either the Vice Presidency or a Governorship.

It’s adverse selection.

Those that end up in the Cabinet genetrally fall in one of two catergories – those that have no serious presidential ambitions and those who do. The former won’t run and the latter usually have already failed.

As a Cabinet secretary, you also lose some breadth because you’re focused on a single area. If you’re, say, Secretary of Education, you’re not going to get much attention if you try to talk about the military. As a Governor or Senator, you’re being exposed to many different policy areas, and would have broader knowledge (or, at least, be able to pass yourself off as more knowledgable).

There’s also the fact that there aren’t that many Cabinet members. There are only 15 Cabinet agencies, plus another half-dozen or so “Cabinet level” positions - and, as Governor Quinn pointed out, most of these are policy wonks who haven’t previously sought elective office. That’s versus 100 Senators and 50 governors, the majority of whom aspire to high office.

Note also that a cabinet position is often given to people who fail at elective office. If Ashcroft hadn’t lost to a dead guy, he’d be a senator instead of Attorney General.

The main problem with a cabinet position is that you are a stooge. An important stooge, but a stooge. But in an elected position you answer only to your constituents, even if you are a lowly city council member. A city council member isn’t answerable to the mayor, a state representative or mayor isn’t answerable to the governor, a governor or US senator isn’t responsible to the president. A lower level elected position gives you experience for higher level elected positions, but appointed positions don’t.

Interesting. This might indicate that possession of a Senate or House voting record has become an insurmountable hurdle to the presidency. The main handicap for Governors seems to have been more along the lines of “lacking understanding of issues of State” and lacking “gravitas”. Bush II, Clinton, Reagan and Carter all overcame that one. But what happens in one’s home state (witness Bush II) has not stuck to the presidential aspirant. Any shortcomings can be written off on the state legislature yet credit can be taken for any accomplishments. For a Senator their is little personal accomplishment to point to and the Senator’s voting record can be twisted to present just about any picture the opposition chooses.

I suspect that more importantly, Senators have not demonstrated they can lead an organized political entitry and already have made pre-existing enemies before running for Pres. Being known nationally can be a big disadvantage, as most of the ountry already has some sort of opinion about you.

I’d think there would be a strong tendency to avoid the alpha male personality in cabinet posts. You want someone with a spine, obviously, but you don’t want someone who is constantly trying to prove who has the bigger prick.

Getting elected president is just the opposite. The one thing that really seems to bring out the vote is being the biggest mudslinging, name-calling bully possible. So that personality is just at odds with the job of a cabinet member.