Thursday, November 29, 2012

Why Rice makes sense for Obama


BOTTOM LINE, I’m more disturbed now than I was before,” said South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham on Tuesday on Capitol Hill. We’ll let Graham’s toweringly hilarious double entendre go for now. His comment’s real intent was to express his frustration with U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice and her responses to a hour’s worth of questions about the Sept. 11 terrorist attack in Benghazi, questions answered in a closed-door meeting with Graham, New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, and Arizona Sen. John McCain, king of the Senate Republican malcontents.

“I want to say that I'm more troubled today knowing, having met with the acting director of the CIA and Ambassador Rice,” Ayotte told reporters on Tuesday. “Because it's certainly clear from the beginning that we knew that those with ties to al-Qaida were involved in the attack on the embassy. And clearly the impression that was given of the information given to the American people was wrong. In fact, Ambassador Rice said today, absolutely, it was wrong. ... I have many more questions that need to be answered.”

Let’s see … Graham’s disturbed, Ayotte’s troubled; God only knows what John McCain is, besides outraged in general. Other Senate Republicans like John Barroso of Wyoming and Susan Collins of Maine have also taken up the cause of cooking Rice.

But despite the sturdy Republican chorus of opposition to the ambassador as a nominee for secretary of state, and GOP support for Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, there are some good reasons why, thinking tactically and strategically, small-ball and big-picture, President Obama will pick Ambassador Rice to succeed Hillary Clinton at State. Or at least he should:

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There’s the opportunity to gain from the Republicans’ punitive optics of the situation. The gathering GOP witch hunt is an attempt to short-circuit the independence of the presidential nomination process, and to scuttle a president’s choice out of not much more than pique.

To the American public that just rendered its judgment on Republican rule on Nov. 6, the Senate Republicans reasons for opposing Rice look small and cheap and mean-spirited.

It’s becoming more and more obvious Ambassador Rice is being needlessly pilloried for an unintentionally incomplete relating of serial explosive events on the ground at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, where U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and four three other Americans were killed on Sept. 11. The Senate Republicans’ harshness toward Rice, and a willingness to engage in their own incomplete assessment of Benghazi, the events, the aftermath and the ambassador’s role in explaining all, is beginning to look like what it is: indefensible obstruction of presidential prerogative.

What we’re likely seeing right now is a preview of the obstructionist tactics Republicans will adopt for other nominations to come — including any and all choices Obama may make for the U.S. Supreme Court. Calling this crap out now for what it is (and will probably be) gains the president the high perceptual ground of being seen as the adult in the room.

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IF OBAMA SO decides, the selection of Susan Rice to be the 68th United States Secretary of State would reflect her impressive intellectual heft. The word often attached to Rice — “brilliant” — is almost an understatement:

Rice, just turned 48, seems to have been hard-wired for achievement from the jump. The daughter of Cornell economics professor Emmett J. Rice, the second black governor of the Federal Reserve System, she graduated from Stanford University (Phi Beta Kappa), and earned a Rhodes scholarship.

A former fellow at the Brookings Institution, Rice was an aide to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright during the Clinton administration; she was assistant secretary of state for African affairs and worked for four years on the National Security Council staff. In January 2009, Rice was unanimously confirmed by the Senate to be United States Ambassador to the United Nations, the second youngest in the nation’s history and the first African American woman in the post. Oh yeah, almost forgot — she earned a doctorate at Oxford.

At the age of 26.

Ironically — or maybe not so ironically — Rice is at least as qualified for higher office as her detractors are qualified for the jobs they've got right now, and maybe more.

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A Rice nomination would send a message to the Democratic base. It stems from a perverse irony; from a populist Democratic perspective, the fact that several Senate Republicans prefer Kerry to Rice for secretary of state works to Kerry’s disadvantage.

For President Obama to acquiesce in the preference of Senate Republicans for one of the most important posts in his (or any) administration, he would be nullifying the powerful, galvanizing impact of his own landslide re-election three weeks ago — and the independence such a victory bestows.

Even as a gesture of bipartisanship, a Kerry nomination would arouse concerns, from the base to the Sunday-gasbag chattering class, that the president had yielded a major identifying component of his Cabinet to the opposition — and walked away from his first choice just to keep the peace.

It’s difficult to imagine this president — the beneficiary of a decisive second-term win in the Electoral College and the popular vote, the inheritor of newfound mojo in the polls — boxing himself in like that.

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A RICE NOMINATION sends a message to the country. If Dr. Rice is the president’s choice for secretary of state, it would indicate that Obama intends to be his own man in his second term, a president willing to go full-court against those who’d undermine his governing credibility for the sake of scoring political points.

And as an expression of by-the-numbers Capitol Hill realpolitik, a Rice nomination sends a message to the United States Senate. As a purely political calculation, choosing the ambassador is a strategically better choice for the president. While Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has unquestionable gravitas in foreign policy, Kerry is also one of the 53 Democrats in the Senate — and as such, invaluable to advancing the president’s agenda in a body where the Dems are short of a 60-vote supermajority. (Two independents are currently expected to caucus with the Democrats).

Bouncing back after the 2010 midterms, and gaining two seats at the GOP’s expense on Nov. 6, Senate Democrats can’t afford to lose any ground. If Kerry were to become secretary of state, he’d have to vacate his Senate seat, forcing a special election in Massachusetts to name his successor.

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While Massachusetts is a historically blue state — and went for Obama by about 23 points over Mitt Romney on Nov. 6 — the question’s one of risk. Despite longstanding political affiliations, things change. Scott Brown knows that; the one-time state Senator, a Republican, won the 2010 midterm election to replace the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, lion of the Democratic Senate.

Elizabeth Warren knows it, too. The bankruptcy law expert and consumer advocate, took that Massachusetts Senate seat back for the Democrats three weeks ago.

If Kerry went to State, would the Democrats win a special election next year and keep the seat? There’s no way to know right now, but for the purpose of maintaining strength in the Senate, there’s more to gain for the Democrats by keeping Kerry where he is — the Dems should recognize that by the very fact that Senate Republicans want Kerry for secretary of state.

True enough, Scott Brown could run against Kerry anyway; but whether Brown runs or not, Kerry’s elevation to State would cut into the Senate Democrats’ lead, however marginally, for at least a year. Why trade the certainty of a ranking senator for the uncertainty of the outcome of an election naming his successor? It’s difficult to imagine the president doing that, too.

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AS MUCH as anything, Obama’s re-election was a vote of confidence in his style of governmental leadership, and in those he entrusts with roles of furtherance of that government and that style of government.

Few things would more clearly reflect his own confidence in the significance of that re-election than selecting Rice for secretary of state: to validate the bona fides of an uncommonly gifted diplomat; to firmly establish the boundaries of his presidential territorial waters, on his terms; to prep his White House for the nomination battles to come; and to cushion the Democratic Senate majority until at least the end of 2014.

In November 2004, flush with swagger after winning his second term as president (defeating John Kerry), George W. Bush said that “I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it.”

President Obama wouldn’t be that rhetorically brash, but gaining a second term in the White House has done pretty much the same for him. Part of that capital is the right to chart a course for his administration, and to advance his own Cabinet and staff choices to help him do just that. Picking Susan Rice for secretary of state, and standing behind her, would be the first bold stroke — or the first broadside, if you like — in announcing Obama’s second-term declaration of independence.

Image credits: Rice: Bebeto Matthews/Associated Press. Ayotte, McCain and Graham: Susan Walsh/Associated Press. Rice bottom: State Department photo. Kerry: pool feed image from Democratic National Convention 2012. Obama: via NBCNews.com.

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