What's the Upside for Obama in a Ray Kelly DHS Nomination?

When Sen. Schumer proposed the idea that NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly might make a good Homeland Security director, the response from the left was dismissive. New reports that Kelly may be leaving the force make the question more pressing: Why should he get the nod?

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When Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York first proposed the idea last week that New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly might make a good director of the U.S Department of Homeland Security, the response from the left was dismissive, as though the idea of tapping the architect of New York's broadly disparaged stop-and-frisk program was a non-starter. Since then, the proposal apparently has become more likely, including a report Friday morning that Kelly has begun to transition away from day-to-day work at the NYPD. Many liberals can and have articulated why they think Kelly shouldn't be nominated by Obama to DHS. Few, including Schumer, have made convincing arguments about why he should.

DNAInfo, using sources in the NYPD, reports that Kelly may be planning his transition out of the department. A top Kelly aide, Paul Browne, recently left to work for Notre Dame. "With Browne gone, and Kelly now doling out end-of-term jobs to close friends," the site's Murray Weiss writes, "insiders believe Kelly's halfway out the revolving doors of Police Headquarters." With the end of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's term this year, Kelly's position as commissioner was hardly a secure one. But the timing may be suggestive.

Critics of Kelly are clear about where they don't want him to go. The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates, writing in The Times Friday, puts the argument succinctly, focusing on Kelly's embrace of stop-and-frisk. Under that policy, the police department has been encouraged to use often-specious rationales to approach and search people at will. Since data collection on those stops began—following a judge's order—about 80 percent of the stops have been of people of color. Nearly 90 percent of those stopped weren't then arrested for any crime. A civil suit against the NYPD, due to be decided imminently, is likely to find vast violations of New Yorkers' civil rights. The issue is controversial enough that no Democrats running for mayor are willing to enthusiastically embrace the program.

Coates writes:

Kelly’s name has been floated by New York politicians of both parties as the ideal replacement for Janet Napolitano, who resigned last week. The president responded by calling Kelly “well-qualified” and an “outstanding leader in New York.” He sounded a pitch for bringing the commissioner into the White House’s fold. …

There are some other things that the president should want to know about. Chief among them would be how his laudatory words for Kelly square with the commissioner’s practices and with the president’s deepest commitments.

That argument is echoed widely on the left. Mother Jones quoted a number of organization—particularly those that advocate for people of color—excoriating the idea. The Nation's Katrina vandenHeuvel agreed with Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, who indicated that Kelly would be a "poor choice" for the position. Vice did him one better, suggesting that Kelly "sounds like a nightmare." MSNBC's Chris Hayes noted that fans of his show had launched a White House petition opposing the idea. (It has so far been signed 272 times.)

Despite the comments from the president quoted by Coates, it's not entirely clear how realistically Obama is considering the Kelly proposal. In his own excoriation of the Kelly idea, The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf quotes the president at more length:

We've had an outstanding leader in Janet Napolitano at the Department of Homeland Security. It's a tough job. It's one of the toughest jobs in Washington. She's done an extraordinary job. We're sorry to see her go. But you know, we're going to have a bunch of strong candidates. Mr. Kelly might be very happy where he is. But if he's not I'd want to know about it. 'Cause you know, obviously he'd be very well qualified for the job.

Obama's comments, while laudatory, do seem to have an air of what Gothamist calls "banal praise to smooth things over." Gothamist—and most other critiques of a Kelly appointment—note that the president's administration has even recently critiqued Kelly's police force. In June, Attorney General Eric Holder indicated that the Department of Justice would be willing to appoint a monitor to oversee any changes that might be mandated after the conclusion of the stop-and-frisk civil suit.

The bigger question is why Obama would nominate Kelly in the first place. When Obama offered Janet Napolitano, the outgoing DHS head who will become president of the University of California system, the message was clear: DHS will be tough on border security. Napolitano had been governor of Arizona, giving her credibility on the issue. That was in 2008, when border security was a more important political issue. What message does a Kelly pick send?

One of the first examinations of that issue came from John Avlon at the Daily Beast. His argument came down to the idea that appointing Kelly would help Democrats maintain an air of toughness on security issues—hardly an unimpeachable suggestion.

Avlon also suggests that Kelly brings a sense of authority on issues of terrorism. If so, it's not clear how he earned it. Under Kelly, the NYPD's track record of terror investigations has earned some strong criticism. The department initiated its own aggressive, multi-state undercover operations in the wake of 9/11, which a subsequent report determined had resulted in precisely zero leads. Kelly does have experience working with federal agents on terrorism, it's true—including the CIA, which embedded off-duty agents with the force a decade ago.

Flirting with a Kelly nomination right now may pay some indirect benefits for the president. It serves as a tacit response to criticism of the Department of Justice's investigation of the Trayvon Martin shooting. Kelly would also be one of the few white males in Obama's second-term Cabinet.

Obama's been in a similar position with his ostensible allies on the left before. In 2008, he considered nominating John Brennan to run the CIA. In the wake of massive criticism of the pick from liberals angry about the nominee's embrace of Bush-era torture programs, Brennan withdrew. The liberals won.

For a while. Earlier this year, at the beginning of his second term, Obama nominated Brennan for the same position. The main opposition came from Rand Paul, Republican senator from Kentucky. Brennan was approved 63-34.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.