Susan Rice has withdrawn her name from consideration as secretary of state, so the next topic of discussion in Washington political circles is clear: Was this a defeat for President Barack Obama and a victory for Sen. John McCain?
McCain had been the most adamant, among a handful of Republicans, who blamed Rice for her role in spreading false information about the terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. The criticism was spurious. Rice did go on several Sunday talk shows and say that the attack stemmed from spontaneous protests against an American-made anti-Muslim video—an analysis that turned out to be untrue. But it was very clear—and no one has disputed—that Rice was merely reciting a “talking-points” memo circulated by the U.S. intelligence community. As U.N. ambassador, Rice had no line of authority over events in Libya. Nor, interestingly, did McCain or the others blame Secretary Clinton, who was formally responsible, or then-CIA director David Petraeus, who helped write the talking points—perhaps because they are both friends of his, whereas Rice had lashed out at McCain while serving as Obama’s foreign-policy adviser during the 2008 presidential campaign.
After McCain’s first assault on Rice, Obama came to her defense, calling the assault on her character “outrageous” and inviting McCain and the others to come after him. Only a few other Republicans rallied behind McCain. It seemed that Rice, if nominated, would be confirmed with a healthy margin, albeit after some struggle.
But then McCain pulled a very clever gambit, announcing publicly that he would seek a chair on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (while retaining his status as top Republican on the Armed Services Committee). This would give him a direct role in the interrogation and confirmation of Rice or any other nominee for secretary of state and, indeed, the entire tier of assistant secretaries and undersecretaries. It would also allow him to request hearings and to call the secretary as a witness on any number of topics that he and his Republican colleagues might wish to investigate. He could be a constant thorn in the administration’s side on an issue—foreign policy, broadly speaking—that presidents are usually allowed to pursue with great leeway and that this president has pursued with success and high ratings.
In the end, with all the other fights Obama has on his hands in his second term, this one didn’t seem worth the struggle. As Rice herself put it in a letter released this afternoon, “I am now convinced that the confirmation process would be lengthy, disruptive and costly—to you and to our most pressing national and international priorities. … Therefore, I respectfully request that you no longer consider my candidacy at this time.”
A White House spokesman said in an email this afternoon that McCain’s attacks had nothing to do with Rice’s decision. A spokesman on McCain’s staff said in a phone conversation that Rice’s pending nomination had nothing to do with his decision to seek a seat on the Foreign Relations Committee. Both statements deserve a cocked eyebrow.
This was certainly a political confrontation, and Obama backed down. But that doesn’t mean, necessarily, that he lost or that McCain won—at least not on any issue beyond whether Susan Rice will be nominated as secretary of state, something Obama hadn’t yet done in any event. It doesn’t necessarily tilt the outcome of any conflict to come.
Rice’s withdrawal might even work to Obama’s favor, in the end, if he goes ahead and nominates his presumed second-favorite candidate for the job—Sen. John Kerry. I’ve written (and I’m far from alone in this view) that Kerry was always the better choice. As longtime chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, he has a thorough grasp of all the issues on the agenda; he served as Obama’s de facto envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, cleaning up some of that region’s messier political disputes; he navigated Obama’s New START nuclear arms-reduction treaty to ratification by a resistant Senate; and, not least, he is largely responsible for Obama’s political rise, picking him to be keynote speaker at the 2004 Democratic convention when he was a mere Illinois state senator. Clearly Kerry wants this job; surely he deserves it.
There are two potential drawbacks, though. First, Kerry’s departure from the Senate would leave open a Democratic seat that might switch to Republican control in a special election, especially if Scott Brown—a popular Republican who just lost his seat to Elizabeth Warren—decides to run again. It’s unclear how big a factor this might be. Presumably the Democrats in Massachusetts can come up with some suitable candidate for the race.
Second, Kerry’s departure from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee would leave the chairmanship to Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), who is more hawkish on such issues as Iran, Cuba, and arms control. He would be a less amenable partner for Obama—to the extent that Obama’s foreign-policy agenda requires Senate approval. It could be that his agenda in the second term doesn’t require this approval—or, if it does, that Kerry, with his experience and respect on Capitol Hill, could push it through himself. One thing is for certain: Kerry would have no problem getting confirmed; McCain and the others who disparaged Rice have explicitly said so.
Rumors also rumbled Thursday that Chuck Hagel, a former Republican senator from Nebraska, would be nominated to replace Leon Panetta as secretary of defense. Hagel reportedly met with Obama on Dec. 4, perhaps for personal vetting. It’s worth noting that he was also on the short list of candidates for the job four years ago when Obama began his first term in office. (Robert Gates, who’d run the Pentagon during President Bush’s final two years, decided to stay on.)
If Obama wants to cut defense spending or reorganize the armed forces in ways bound to meet resistance, Hagel would be a credible figure to push for the changes, both in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill. A Vietnam veteran and former deputy chief of the Department of Veterans Affairs, he served two terms in the Senate before resigning in 2008, rising to the position of deputy Republican whip. Yet he was also an independent voice, especially in his criticism of the Iraq War—and of the escalation of the war in Afghanistan. In short, like Kerry, Hagel would sail through the confirmation process.
The question is what he would do afterward—specifically whether Obama could rely on Hagel to take a scalpel to the budget, if that’s what he wanted him to do. Panetta was given the top Pentagon job in part because of his background as budget chief, but once he assumed the helm, he proved to be more a defender of the services, opposing any cuts. Would Hagel be more pliable? Presumably this was one of the topics discussed at that Dec. 4 meeting with the president.
One thing that seems clear about President Obama: He values loyalty but not to the point of sentimentality or obstruction. He won a mandate in the 2012 election, and he wants to exploit that fact as quickly as possible, knowing that presidents often lose momentum—tend to fall into lame-duck’s syndrome—as their second terms get under way. Nominating Kerry and Hagel would sweep away the partisan games that he clearly detests—and clear the path for what he sees as the business of governing.