Placekickers have the most frustrating position in the game of Football. If you do your job well, nobody notices. If they do take notice, they quickly forget. But if you miss a key kick, everyone despises you. Janet Napolitano probably feels a bit like a frustrated placekicker as she ends her tenure as Homeland Security Secretary. Yet this open seat allows President Obama to chart a new path for the department, if he has vision and leadership to seize the opportunity.
Napolitano’s tenure has been controversial, yet her defenders see her as being unfairly maligned in a difficult, thankless job. She has indeed made some laudable decisions, such as shrinking the number of “high risk” terrorist target cities (which receive federal funds) from 64 to 31. It was politically unpopular but the right move.
Yet while some of Napolitano’s critics are opportunistic, many are not. Much of the damage she suffered is from self-inflicted wounds. Her declaration that the “border is secure” wasn’t credible, and was clearly said for political reasons, not to inform on our security situation. Her decision to rename terrorist acts “man-made disasters” is the kind of thing that’s so ridiculous it’s difficult to parody. Finally, her insistence that we needed to be on the lookout for dangerous “right wing extremist groups,” such as people who are opposed to abortion or illegal immigration, or gun owners or Iraq War Vets, was either remarkably tone deaf, or downright chilling, particularly in light of the recent IRS/Tea Party scandal. These are only highlights of various political actions that detracted from her real job of keeping the homeland secure.
The bottom line is this: Napolitano succeeded when she stuck to her real job, which should be relatively nonpartisan, and failed when she allowed her job to become political. When former DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff got in trouble, it was usually for dumb-sounding things like the infamous color-coded terrorism alerts, not because they were using their office for political gain. If anything, Chertoff’s biggest political problem was with his own base, which viewed him as insufficiently dedicated to border security.
But Napolitano has a very different background from Chertoff. Napolitano made her name in Democratic politics by being Anita Hill’s lawyer. In other words, she made her name as a hatchet woman who was willing to get dirty in partisan, ideological battles. It is true that she moved to the middle during her tenure as Arizona Attorney General and then Governor. But in too many ways she remained a political animal, something Chertoff never was.
This open seat gives Obama the opportunity to make this position something closer to that of the CIA or FBI Director, a position not free of political controversy, but with limited partisan hand-wringing. Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Representative Peter King (R-NY) have shown him the way by suggesting New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly for the job. Kelly is popular with both Republicans and Democrats. Additionally, his commitment to effective security is unquestioned, as is his effectiveness at keeping New York City safe from terrorist attacks. Indeed, New York City’s anti-terrorism and intelligence-gathering efforts rival federal efforts. Kelly is serious about security, not scoring political points.
The late Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson, a Democrat who sent most of his foreign policy aides to work for Ronald Reagan, famously said that “In matters of national security, the best politics is no politics.” This sentiment would be particularly useful in a position as thankless as DHS Secretary.
President Obama has usually shown little interest in making these kinds of gestures. Yet there is some reason to hope: James Comey, Obama’s FBI director nominee, has been viewed positively by both sides of the aisle. Comey previously showed his skills and independence as a member of Bush’s Justice Department. If Obama follows suit, he could set a good precedent going forward for an important post during a time where he could use some goodwill from Congress. In other words, Mr. President, let the placekicker kick the ball, and ignore the rest. It’s a tough enough job as it is.