Frequently Presidents have chosen a member of the opposite party for one cabinet post. Sometimes it’s been Secretary of Defense (Republican Senator Bill Cohen of Maine under Bill Clinton, for instance). Sometimes it’s been Secretary of Transportation (Republican Congressman Ray LaHood under Barack Obama, former Clinton Commerce Secretary Norm Mineta under George W. Bush).
In a return to normalcy, and especially with a very divided Senate that Republicans have slightly better odds to control, President Biden might choose a Republican for his cabinet – perhaps part of a deal to get a vote on other cabinet nominees.
On the Airlines Confidential podcast this week Seth Kaplan and former Spirit Airlines CEO Ben Baldanza speculate on whether current Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao could be asked to stay on in her role.
President Trump’s Secretary of Transportation was formerly director of the Peace Corp and President of United Way as well as George W. Bush’s Secretary of Labor. She was also a former Northwest Airlines director. Her appointment could be both politically valuable (reaching out to Republicans) and politically fraught (with Biden’s base).
- She is married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, so might win points with McConnell.
- She is married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, perhaps the most vilified Republican among the Democratic base after Donald Trump.
McConnell is architect of the Senate’s obstruction strategy against Barack Obama.
He refused to bring the Supreme Court nomination of Merrick Garland to the Senate floor. It was a risky move – had Hillary Clinton won the Presidency she almost assuredly would have nominated someone more liberal. However it’s possible the move not only gave Republicans a nominee to the Supreme Court when Trump was elected, it may have made the difference in his election driving turnout among evangelicals and conservatives who may have been reluctant to support Trump but did with a Supreme Court seat in the balance. McConnell of course drove the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett to the Court right before the election.
McConnell’s supporters on the right sometimes affectionately refer to their Senate leader as ‘Cocaine Mitch’ after a Republican candidate called him that in 2018 based on cargo seized from a ship owned by a company related to Secretary Chao’s family.
Democrat donors just lit $100 million on fire trying to unseat McConnell from the Senate, and he won re-election handily.
If President-elect Biden were to select a Republican for his cabinet, Transportation is only one likely place to consider. Extending the tenure of the current DOT Secretary is an obvious possibility, though it’s not clear she’d want to keep the job beyond the full four years in which she’s served (though she was Labor Secretary for longer). However it’s her connection to the Senate Majority Leader that makes her re-appointment, I think, impossible for Biden to do because it would alienate so much of his base right out of the gate – more so even than appointing nearly any Republican other than President Trump himself.