Obama Gets Outplayed on Rice

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Dec. 13 2012 6:12 PM

Obama Gets Outplayed on Rice

The official campaign to keep Susan Rice out of state turned was just one month old. Rice's September 16 tour of the Sunday shows had irritated Republicans at the time, but their irritation wasn't very useful if applied to her. From September 16 to November 5, conservatives focused their ire on Barack Obama, demanding answers on Benghazi, and pre-emptively calling the administration's response (John McCain now) a "cover-up."

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

On November 6, Obama was re-elected. On November 13, Politico ran a story about two possible nominees for Secretary of State: Susan Rice and John Kerry. The paper's upshot was that senators wanted "Kerry by a landslide." Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire said that "at a minimum she made misrepresentations and misstatements on Benghazi." Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee called her interviews "beyond belief."

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That exercise in shit-stirring got results. On November 14, John McCain parachuted onto morning TV to call Rice's Sunday interviews "not very bright" and promise that "I will do everything in my power to block her from being the United States Secretary of State." And that effectively kicked off a flurry of accusations and ring-kissing, with McCain, Corker, Ayotte, and Lindsey Graham locking on to any nearby camera to condemn Rice for those Sunday shows.

There were other reasons for Rice's declining stock. The usual crop of anonymous enemies talked to the usual transmitters of rumors, and made it known that Rice was hot-headed. It's rather easy, in Washington, to create the impression that someone is "under fire." This being the Christmas season, I went to a couple of November-December parties where connected people confidently discussed the latest column or McCain blast against Rice, and speculated over the date she'd pull out. (No one got it right.)

It worked through attrition. After Sen. Susan Collins asked for a meeting with Rice, Democrats expected the ambassador to smooth things over. Collins exited the meeting, found a cluster of microphones, and said that she couldn't "currently support" Rice, even though -- gosh darn it -- she really did like her when she was nominated to the U.N. post. That worried Democrats, and made them think that a Rice nomination would be become a distracting, political capital-sucking mess. A White House source asked me to consider a six-week circus in January and February -- when there might already be a circus tent being pitched under the debt ceiling.

At a Univision forum during the campaign, President Obama got challenged on his failure to move a "comprehensive" immigration bill during the first year of his first term. He said a lesson of his term had been that "you can't change Washington from the inside." What he meant (he'd said it before) was that aggressive public campaigns needed to complement whatever the party in power wanted to do, because without that, it would fade or be pilloried and dismissed.

There was no aggressive public campaign to save Rice. There was no actual nomination to campaign for, and strong elements of the president's coalition were cool on the nominee, anyway. That would be bad enough for the White House, if it wasn't also floating Chuck Hagel's name for DOD, and getting liberals irritated at the thought of a Republican who opposed the Kyoto Treaty and backed DOMA running the Pentagon during the implementation of DADT repeal. They've got to hope that the parlor game/job speculation stuff doesn't further the depress the activists they need to fight future outbreaks in Meet the Pressistan.

They could have at least asked Republicans to hike the debt limit in exchange for Rice...

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.