Commentary Magazine


How Washington Rejected Susan Rice

I wrote yesterday that Susan Rice’s decision to withdraw her name from consideration to be the next secretary of state was as much the result of a steady campaign against her from the left as it was a result of John McCain and the GOP’s campaign against her from the right. I wrote that the GOP side hadn’t been really driving this campaign for a while now. The Atlantic Wire offers a timeline that backs this up.

The timeline shows McCain shifting his criticism as early as November 20. But as I noted, by that time Democrats had latched on to the fight and the bipartisan effort doomed Rice. But events also make a convincing case for what I wrote a couple of weeks ago, in defense of Rice: this was D.C. insider politics on a grand scale. Rice didn’t just lose to McCain or Hillary Clinton; she lost to Washington. It’s worth recalling, then, just how the elements of the capital worked against her.

Barack Obama. We should start with the president, since some have been suggesting that Rice’s withdrawal proves Obama’s weakness. It just isn’t so. If Obama wanted Rice to be his secretary of state, that’s what he’d get. But the president got quite chummy with Bill Clinton just as the former president agreed to try and save Obama’s reelection hopes by giving a keynote address at the Democratic National Convention and then campaigning in swing states for Obama. After the attack in Benghazi, Hillary Clinton had some serious explaining to do. After all, it was her State Department that messed up by not providing enough security to the ambassador’s team and then denying requests for additional security.

Yet Clinton was conveniently enabled to avoid the press, the cameras, and in general the spotlight. Susan Rice’s mistakes after Benghazi pale in comparison to Clinton’s mistakes before Benghazi. Susan Rice took Clinton’s place on the Sunday shows, got herself in some trouble, and Obama decided he didn’t want to spend the political capital to protect her the way he protected Hillary.

Hillary Clinton. Clinton made her opposition to Rice known as soon as the latter landed in hot water over the Benghazi controversy. Clinton told her allies on the Hill and in the press that she preferred John Kerry for the job. Message received.

Liberal opinion journalists. Maureen Dowd and Dana Milbank happily obliged, making the fight against Rice obnoxiously personal. Dowd said Rice “rented” her soul. Milbank said Rice was pushy and rude. Lloyd Grove said Rice had a personality disorder. The vicious attacks from the leftists in political media changed the dynamic of the controversy.

Senate GOP. The role of Republicans in the Senate is obvious, but it’s worth drawing attention to one element of it in particular. President Obama wasn’t the only one protecting Hilary Clinton from the glare of the Benghazi fallout; so was John McCain. McCain and Clinton are friends and were fellow senators before Clinton took the job at Foggy Bottom. McCain protected his friend, and was helping another longtime senator as well: John Kerry, who was expected to be the president’s second choice after Rice for secretary of state. McCain wasn’t the only one. “I think John Kerry would be an excellent appointment and would be easily confirmed by his colleagues,” Maine Republican Senator Susan Collins not-so-subtly said last month after meeting with Rice. “I’d rather have John Kerry,” retiring Senator Jon Kyl had said.

Senate Democrats. John Kerry stayed quiet throughout the debate, and wisely so. He had his fellow Democrats in Washington to critique Rice and complement Kerry. “Sen. Kerry is under consideration for a high position because he’s talented, has tremendous integrity and respect — he also happens to be a senator,” said Maryland Democrat Ben Cardin. “Part of your responsibility in the administration is your relationship with the Senate and House, and obviously Sen. Kerry has an incredible relationship. I think colleagues on both sides of the aisle will tell you that.” Translation: if the White House wants full cooperation from the Democratic-run Senate, Kerry would be a wise choice.

Additionally, Kerry’s nomination would open up a Senate seat in Massachusetts, and Governor Deval Patrick has apparently already reached out to Vicki Kennedy–Ted Kennedy’s widow–to consider taking that seat.

In the end Rice had few allies on either side of the aisle in Washington, and the opposite was true of Hillary Clinton and John Kerry. A culture of clubbiness that borders on tribal loyalty was just far too much for Rice to overcome.

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