When former president Bill Clinton took the stage at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, September 5 to nominate President Barack Obama for a second term, his wife -- U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton -- was nowhere in sight. While she was, in fact, in East Timor (Timor Leste) on a State Department tour, some people have speculated that the Democratic Party orchestrated her trip to get her as far away from Obama as possible during his renomination spotlight.
Well, not exactly. "This is the first convention that I have missed in many, many years. For decades, secretaries of state have not attended political conventions because of the non-partisan nature of our foreign policy," Secretary Clinton explained. "I think it's a good rule. It's one that I certainly accepted."
But it's not just a rule or tradition. It's a law.
The Hatch Act
The Act to Prevent Pernicious Political Activity -- better known as the Hatch Act for its sponsor, Senator Carl Hatch (D, NM) -- became law in 1939 as a result of corruption stemming from a New Deal agency. Investigators discovered that some Democratic Party members were securing people positions in the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in exchange for votes for Democrats.
The WPA was President Franklin D. Roosevelt's plan to put Americans back to work during the Great Depression by funding community public works projects with federal money. Roosevelt himself was a Democrat, and opponents feared the WPA was becoming a party tool.
In its essence, the Hatch Act prevents high-level federal employees, like the Secretary of State, from lending their influence to elections. Specifically, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel says, "All civilian employees in the executive branch of the federal government, except the President and the Vice President, are covered by the provisions of the Hatch Act." The Act includes some other civil servants, but you get the point.
U.S. Foreign Policy Non-Partisan?
As Hillary Clinton said, this is the first Democratic Convention she has missed in a long time. In fact, she was at the contentious Chicago convention in 1968.
She did watch a streamed video of her husband's speech, and she said she thought it was great.
But notice that she said the tradition of secretaries to not attend conventions involved the "non-partisan" nature of U.S. foreign policy.
Is American foreign policy non-partisan? Well, here's another academic "yes . . . and no."
Presidents nominate all the members of their Cabinets, and most of the time they nominate members of their own party. (Not always, though -- Obama kept Republican Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who had worked for George W. Bush.) Obviously, that's partisan. But the Senate must approve those nominees, who consequently must have bi-partisan appeal.
Both the House of Representatives and the Senate have foreign affairs committees, and both contain members who have achieved a great measure of expertise in foreign policy. While those committees can influence foreign policy, they do not make foreign policy.
At that point, U.S. foreign policy really does become non-partisan. While social reforms and economic policies remain highly partisan, foreign policy practitioners begin looking at larger pictures, whether national or global. The American people tend to be comfortable with that, putting foreign policy players in trustee roles. Simply, they trust them to handle the complex problems of world relations.
Hillary Clinton has said she will not take another term as secretary of state if Obama wins a second term. So in 2016 she can happily return to the Democratic National Convention.