The Art of the Float

How Obama flatters people he never intends to hire.

Howard Dean. Click image to expand.
Howard Dean

Howard Dean is not being considered for surgeon general. But, the White House would have you know, he’s not not being considered, either—even though he has said he’s not interested. “I would not dismiss it,” one anonymous White House staffer told CNN last week after Dr. Sanjay Gupta removed himself from the running.

Dean allies, however, suggest it’s an empty offer—that the administration just wants to placate Dean after booting him from the DNC chairmanship and denying him the job he really wanted, secretary of health and human services. The fact that Dean’s consideration was news to him suggests they’re right.

Dean is the latest example of the “flattery float”—the deliberate leaking of someone’s name as a potential appointee for purely political purposes with no intention of actually hiring them. It’s the consolation prize for people who don’t get the consolation prize of being appointed.

Take Caroline Kennedy, whose name “surfaced” as a potential U.S. ambassador to the Court of St. James’s. “It struck me then that this was a ‘We’re thinking of you’ Hallmark card to Caroline after her embarrassing Senate foray,” says University of Virginia professor Larry Sabato in an e-mail. John Kerry’s momentary candidacy for secretary of state was a similar case of puffery. “I don’t think that was ever serious,” says Sabato. “But they wanted to say thanks for his early endorsement.”

“Administrations often will ‘surface’ a name for a variety of reasons,” says Chris Lehane, a Democratic political consultant. Here are some of the most common, with examples of each:

The trial balloon: By far the most common type of leak, its purpose is to gauge public reaction. When Bill Richardson’s name appeared during the Democratic vice-presidential deliberations, it was shot down—but not so strongly that he didn’t come up again as a potential secretary of commerce. Evan Bayh, too, was aired and rejected. Tim Kaine—why not? Joe Biden’s trial balloon took some damage but stayed aloft.

The constituency soother: A name is floated not because of the candidate’s actual chances but because of his or her demographic appeal. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa told Obama in mid-November that he wasn’t interested in an administration job. His name was mysteriously floated as a possible secretary of housing and urban development, anyway. No constituency is too small. Lloyd Dean, who heads up Catholic Health Care West and helped usher in the California health care plan that served as Obama’s model, was mentioned as a possible HHS director, most likely as a nod to California Democrats who were pushing him for the job.

The obligatory nod: The nomination process is like an Oscar awards speech: The worst insult is to leave someone out. That’s why it’s hard to think of names that were not floated last year as potential Democratic veep nominees. It didn’t matter whether Evan Bayh, Chris Dodd, or Hillary Clinton were actually in the running. They had to be mentioned.

Political puffery: The president floats a name to increase the person’s stature or profile. Nebraska Republican Chuck Hagel was cited as a potential secretary of defense and secretary of state, but neither post seemed realistic. Many people hadn’t heard of Evan Bayh until his name was floated for veep. Same with Bobby Jindal on the Republican side. By airing the person’s name, you’re giving him the biggest gift an incoming president can give: a few hours, maybe even in prime time, of the 24-hour news cycle.

Cool factor: Sometimes it’s fun to toss out a name just to see what happens. Obama flustered some Democrats—but delighted others—when Jim Webb’s name started circulating as a possible veep. Likewise, “Colin Powell for secretary of education” sounds cool, even if has no basis in reality.

Shock factor: Stubborn politicians sometimes float names or make picks to flout expectations—especially expectations of partisanship. Obama’s campaign at one point floated Ann Veneman, the head of UNICEF who had served as President George W. Bush’s secretary of agriculture, as a potential veep. Less bizarre but still surprising was his selection of Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire as commerce secretary. (Gregg eventually dropped out.) Other presidents just want to mess with journalists’ heads. In one story that qualifies as “too good to check,” Lyndon Johnson once responded to a Newsweek piece by Ben Bradlee, in which Bradlee speculated about FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s replacement, by appointing Hoover director for life. Johnson then gave his top aide a message: “Call Ben Bradlee and tell him fuck you.”

Not every name that “emerges” or “surfaces” is a deliberate leak. Lots of it is pure speculation by uninformed bloggers, journalists, and campaign staff. Nor is the float always welcome. Candidates will often remove themselves from consideration, either because they don’t want the job—Webb seemed genuinely uninterested in being vice president—or because they don’t think they’ll get it. In those cases, removing oneself is the political equivalent of saying, “You’re not dumping me—I’m dumping you!”

But for the most part, these guys want a job in the administration. Even if it means getting manipulated a dozen times before they finally get it.