While we wait for further word on San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro’s reported appointment to be Secretary of HUD – he is keeping quiet about it for now – it’s worth considering some of the political implications behind it. Brian Beutler does the honors.
Castro is currently the Mayor of San Antonio, an office with relatively little power, but one that suggests a longer path toward national prominence that runs through the Texas governor’s mansion. A HUD nomination would constitute a pretty significant detour. And I think there are three ways to look at the decision—one optimistic, one strategic, and one shortsighted—any of which could explain why Castro, Obama, and party strategists think this is a wise move.
An idealist might look at this and say the country has turned an important corner, around which heading a government agency tasked with providing services to low-income communities is no longer a political anvil around the neck. Or at least that today’s Democrats are hoping to turn that corner.
A cynic, by contrast, would look ahead to 2016 and see a Democratic field that lacks seasoned Hispanic stars. Could Hillary Clinton (or whomever) pick a mayor of a medium-large city as her running mate? There’s a real logic to priming Castro by placing him in the cabinet now.
But a pessimist would note that Obama has a frustrating tendency to pluck star Democrats out of red states and place them in his cabinet where their political prospects quickly erode. Castro’s prospective nomination coincides with a growing recognition that Obama’s probably not going to sign an immigration reform bill, and is looking for other ways to maintain the Democrats’ huge edge in immigrant communities.
It should be noted that one of the top competitors to Castro for the VP slot on the Hillary Clinton 2016 ticket is Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, the former Governor of Iowa who was appointed to that post in 2009. In other words, being in Obama’s Cabinet isn’t necessarily a death knell for one’s future political ambitions. (See also: Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. I’m just saying.) The grumbling about “plucking star Democrats out of red states” mostly had to do with taking potential Senate candidates off the board for 2010 than anything else – think Janet Napolitano, who might have challenged John McCain; Kathleen Sebelius, who could have run against Pat Roberts; and Vilsack, who might have taken on Chuck Grassley. The theory was that without a credible Democratic opponent, these guys had free rein to be as obstructionist on the Affordable Care Act during the endless legislative summer of 2009. It was a sensible-sounding theory at the time, but in retrospect surely we can see that it didn’t hold water. Putting aside the disastrous election results of 2010, we now know that the the main force affecting Republican legislative behavior was and very much continues to be the threat of being primaried as a RINO. Republicans these days, and this definitely goes back to 2010, fear their base much more than they fear the November electorate. I get the frustration, but there’s not much empirical evidence of actual damage done.
As far as Julian Castro goes, being HUD Secretary is likely to help him get on the 2016 ticket than run for statewide office in 2018. Not because of any taint from having served in the Obama Administration – he was a keynote speaker at the 2012 DNC and did a ton of campaigning for Obama in 2012 as well; he’s already as tainted as he’s going to be, and even if he wasn’t the Republican’s would act as if he were anyway – but because I think he’d be better served building up his record of achievement in San Antonio. Honestly, though, it probably doesn’t make much difference one way or the other. If Castro is available to run for something in 2018, then the combination of demography and the efforts of Battleground Texas will have more to do with his likelihood of success than his most recent job title. He’s already got the resume, the star power, and the fundraising connections. As long as he can avoid screwing up or getting caught by a scandal, he’ll be in as good shape as he can hope to be in.