The war against Susan Rice, waged by a handful of Republican Senators, led by John McCain, finally snared its sole casualty this week, as Ambassador Rice withdrew her name from consideration to be President Obama’s nominee as secretary of state.
It was a bad day for the Republican Party, which already has, to put it mildly, an image problem with minorities and women.
It was a bad day for the Obama administration, which now, even as it had planned to pick Senator John Kerry anyway, appears to have lost a fight with a gaggle of sniping Senators before they even had a chance to nominate anyone to replace the popular Hillary Clinton at State.
And it was a bad day for African-American women, who even after an election in which their overwhelmingly preferred candidate won a substantial victory, have watched Ms. Rice be set aside, not for a lack of competence or qualification, but simply because she landed in the middle of Washington’s unique brand of palace intrigue.
If reports out of Washington are to be believed, Ms. Rice and Kerry were the only two people under consideration to replace Clinton in a job Ms. Rice told NBC’s Brian Williams on Thursday, she certainly would have wanted.
In stepping aside, Ms. Rice dutifully spared the administration and the president an ugly confirmation fight, which again, we have no way of knowing whether they planned to wage at all.
McCain’s anti-Rice jihad, which fed a nonsensical, virulent campaign against the administration over the tragic attack on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, had an uncomfortably personal feel to it. The eternally bitter McCain, having failed to beat President Barack Obama for the job both men wanted in 2008, has seemed to cast around for ways to trump him in office. In true bipartisan spirit, it’s the same approach he took to President George W. Bush, who beat him in the 2000 primaries, only to find McCain gleefully undercutting him — back then, from the left — at every turn.
Meanwhile, it doesn’t take a Washington insider to guess that many Senators would prefer to see one of their own nominated to replace Mrs. Clinton, herself a former Senator. Hence the relative silence, even among Democratic Senators, on behalf of Rice. Mr. Kerry is a respected member of the club of 100, and freeing his seat would offer Republicans the added bonus of re-running Scott Brown.
Beyond the intramural politics of the Senate, the attacks on Rice by McCain and his hangers on, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and the newest member of McCain’s Musketeers, New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte, were especially ill-timed, coming on the heels of a presidential campaign in which Republicans seemed to be angling to send women back to the 1950s, stripped of access to abortion and birth control, and to send African-American and Latino voters back to the pre-Voting Rights Act era.
The Republican Party has a brand problem. It is viewed by many women and minorities — the party lost not just African-Americans and Hispanics, but also Asians, by historic margins — as out of touch, distant, or even hostile. In that context, McCain, the GOP and their media matrix going after Rice over an attack she could not have stopped (the CIA was in charge of security in Benghazi and the State Department under Secretary Clinton is in charge of our diplomatic outposts; meanwhile it is Congress that failed to appropriate more funds to secure our embassies abroad — led by conservative budget-cutters in the GOP), and over statements she made on a television show, rather than over her actual conduct of her job, were puzzling.
They were especially so since Mr. McCain was among the chief defenders of another Ms. Rice — George W. Bush’s national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, who after presiding over the greatest intelligence failure in modern American history (“I believe it was called, ‘Bin Laden determined to attack inside the United States’…) with the resulting, catastrophic loss of life, not to mention the unnecessary invasion of Iraq, went on to become Bush’s secretary state, with the full support of Senator John McCain.
McCain characterized Rice as “not very bright,” itself a problematic way for an older, white Senator to talk about a Harvard-educated, accomplished woman who has held substantial positions in the field of diplomacy, including her current job as ambassador to the United Nations. And he vowed to do everything in his power to stop her from ascending to the top job at State.
He and Graham — who fears a primary in his bid to be re-elected, and so is following the McCain playbook of falling into the arms of his party’s right wing — never raised a single substantive objection to Rice. The sniping over her failure to use the word “terrorism” to the liking of the Senators never touched on her actual resume, her record as U.N. ambassador, or what on earth her use of declassified talking points on Meet the Press had to do with her potential to speak for the president abroad. (Hint: She would not have given the classified versions of events impacting national security on foreign television, either.) Having Senator Ayotte along for the ride seemed to be a bid for cover, to deflect from the optics of two older, white men attacking a woman of color.
Meanwhile, the Senators made it very clear who they wanted President Obama to choose Mr. Kerry. And they did so in a way that seemed utterly disrespectful of this president’s right to choose his own cabinet. Now, even if in reality, Mr. Kerry would have been chosen anyway, it will appear to many that the administration did so under duress.
And lost in all of the intrigue is the fact that a woman fully qualified for the job had the rug pulled out from under her before she even had a chance to apply.