Politics & Government
5:33 am
Mon November 19, 2012

Both Sides Itching For A Confirmation Fight Over Susan Rice

Originally published on Tue December 4, 2012 6:23 pm

The election was over. As President Obama faced the press in the East Room of the White House on Wednesday, the anger and bitterness of his long battle with Mitt Romney seemed to have faded. Unlike President George W. Bush after his 2004 re-election — and his comments about having political capital and intending to spend it — Obama seemed a bit more humble victor, talking more about compromise and saying he was willing to hear other points of view to solve the nation's problems.

But all the niceties disappeared when he was asked about the apparent decision by Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham to block the nomination of Susan Rice to become secretary of state, should Obama decide that she's the one he wants to succeed Hillary Clinton, who is expected to step down soon.

The famous Obama casualness quickly disappeared, replaced by anger. First, he reminded everyone that he hadn't made a decision on sec/state. Then came this:

"But let me say specifically about Susan Rice, she has done exemplary work. She has represented the United States and our interests in the United Nations with skill and professionalism and toughness and grace. As I've said before, she made an appearance at the request of the White House in which she gave her best understanding of the intelligence that had been provided to her [regarding the attack of the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya]. If Senator McCain and Senator Graham and others want to go after somebody, they should go after me. And I'm happy to have that discussion with them. But for them to go after the U.N. ambassador, who had nothing to do with Benghazi and was simply making a presentation based on intelligence that she had received and to besmirch her reputation is outrageous. ...

"And I don't think there's any debate in this country that when you have four Americans killed, that's a problem. And we've got to get to the bottom of it, and there needs to be accountability. We've got to bring those who carried it out to justice. They won't get any debate from me on that.

"But when they go after the U.N. ambassador, apparently because they think she's an easy target, then they've got a problem with me. And should I choose — if I think that she would be the best person to serve America in the capacity — the State Department, then I will nominate her."

But Republicans are not backing down, insisting that Rice was part of an administration that attempted to downplay (or mislead) what happened Sept. 11 at the consulate for political purposes. Shortly after Obama's press conference, Graham said in a statement, "Mr. President, don't think for one minute I don't hold you ultimately responsible for Benghazi. I think you failed as commander in chief before, during and after the attack." And as for Rice, he said, "I have no intention of promoting anyone who is up to their eyeballs in the Benghazi debacle." And McCain said he and others will do "whatever's necessary to block the nomination that's within our power."

Neither side shows any interest in backing down. Obama feels the Republicans are trying to re-fight an election they already lost, reminiscent of when the president reminded McCain during the February 2010 health-care summit in his famous putdown, "We are not campaigning anymore. The election's over." For their part, Republicans see it as an issue that was glossed over by the president in the hope of not making waves before the Nov. 6 election. It's personal and it's political, and it's hard to separate the two.

But Obama's problems regarding Rice may be more than just the opposition of McCain and Graham. She has a habit of expressing her displeasure with her adversaries in less-than-diplomatic ways, and it rankles. The New York Times' Mark Landler writes that the "firestorm over Benghazi raises more basic questions: Is Ms. Rice the best candidate to succeed Mrs. Clinton as the nation's chief diplomat? Does she have the diplomatic finesse to handle thorny problems in the Middle East? And even if Mr. Obama gets the votes for her confirmation, has the episode so tainted her that it would be hard for her to thrive in the job?" Some wonder if Obama "would risk a battle over his secretary of state when he needs to cut a deal with Republicans on the budget and taxes."

The Washington Post's Dana Milbank piles on even further, writing that she "is ill-equipped to be the nation's top diplomat for reasons that have little to do with Libya":

"Even in a town that rewards sharp elbows and brusque personalities, Rice has managed to make an impressive array of enemies — on Capitol Hill, in Foggy Bottom and abroad. Particularly in comparison with the other person often mentioned for the job, Sen. John Kerry, she can be a most undiplomatic diplomat, and there likely aren't enough Republican or Democratic votes in the Senate to confirm her. ...

"Among those she has insulted is the woman she would replace at State. Rice was one of the first former Clinton administration officials to defect to Obama's primary campaign against Hillary Clinton. Rice condemned Clinton's Iraq and Iran positions, asking for an 'explanation of how and why she got those critical judgments wrong.' ...

"Rice's put-down of Clinton was tame compared with her portrayal of McCain during 2008, which no doubt contributes to McCain's hostility toward her today. She mocked McCain's trip to Iraq ('strolling around the market in a flak jacket'), called his policies 'reckless' and said 'his tendency is to shoot first and ask questions later. It's dangerous.'

"It was Rice's own shoot-first tendency that caused her to be benched as a spokesman for the Obama campaign for a time in 2008. She unnerved European allies when she denounced as 'counterproductive' and 'self-defeating' the U.N. policy that Iran suspend its nuclear program before talks can begin. She criticized President George W. Bush and McCain because they 'insisted' on it. ...

"Compared with this, the flap over Libya is relatively minor — but revealing. It's true that, in her much-criticized TV performance, she was reciting talking points given to her by the intelligence agencies. But that's the trouble. Rice stuck with her points even though they had been contradicted by the president of the Libyan National Assembly, who, on CBS's Face the Nation just before Rice, said there was 'no doubt' that the attack on Americans in Benghazi 'was preplanned.' Rice rebutted the Libyan official, arguing — falsely, it turned out — that there was no evidence of such planning.

"True, Rice was following orders from the White House, which she does well. But the nation's top diplomat needs to show more sensitivity and independence — traits Clinton has demonstrated in abundance. Obama can do better at State than Susan Rice."

Some Republicans are betting that Obama won't push for a Rice nomination if it could jeopardize negotiations with the GOP on things like the budget, or immigration. But the Obama they are describing may be the one from the first term. Wary of trying to appease the opposition and aware that his base is not in a negotiating mood, Obama may instead decide to fight hard for her. And some in the GOP, still in some disbelief that they lost an election they thought they should have won, are welcoming that fight.

(One lingering thought regarding the Obama press conference: Didn't his defense of Rice remind you of "President" Michael Douglas defending his girlfriend against "GOP Senate Leader" Richard Dreyfuss in the movie The American President? It did with me. See if you agree: Start at 3:09 into this film clip and go to about 3:29, courtesy YouTube.)

Closure. Five more House races have been decided since last week's column, all benefiting the Democrats. Reps. Dan Lungren and Brian Bilbray — both California Republicans — lost their re-election bids to Ami Bera and Scott Peters, respectively. Rep. Ron Barber (D-Ariz.) won a full term over Martha McSally (R). Rep. Mike McIntyre (D-N.C.) seems to have been re-elected over David Rouzer (R). And in Arizona's new 9th CD, Kyrsten Sinema (D) defeated Vernon Parker (R). That leaves just one officially unresolved House contest — Florida's 18th, where Rep. Allen West (R) is trailing Democratic challenger Patrick Murphy by 1,907 votes. Murphy has declared victory but West is refusing to concede, citing vote irregularities.

Political Updates. I post periodic political updates during the week — some serious, some not — on Twitter. You can follow me at @kenrudin. Meanwhile, here are some reader emails:

Q: Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, received 38 percent of the vote in Mass. on Tuesday, losing by 23 percentage points. Has any major party candidate for president ever been beaten worse in his home state? — Louis Gudema, Newton, Mass.

A: I'll give you an answer, but there will be an asterisk to it. John W. Davis, the former West Virginia congressman, was a New York native in 1924 when he was the Democratic nominee for president against Calvin Coolidge. Davis lost the Empire State by more than 26 points. But he never ran for office in New York, so that may not be a fair comparison. Perhaps a better example is Adlai Stevenson. In 1956, when Stevenson, the former governor of Illinois, ran and lost in a rematch with President Dwight Eisenhower, he got clobbered in his home state by 19 percentage points. Thus, Romney's 23-point deficit in Massachusetts breaks that record.

Others since 1924 who lost their home states where they once served in other office: Al Gore 2000 (D-Tenn.), George McGovern 1972 (D-S.D.), Stevenson 1952 (D-Ill.), Thomas Dewey 1944 (R-N.Y.)*, Alf Landon 1936 (R-Kan.), and Al Smith 1928 (D-N.Y.).

*Dewey lost to a fellow New Yorker, President Franklin Roosevelt.

One incumbent president, Woodrow Wilson, lost New Jersey — where he once served as governor — to Republican Charles Evans Hughes in 1916 by more than 11 points. But Wilson won re-election that year.

Q: As I write this, votes are still being counted in the election for the Senate seat in Arizona. The chances of Richard Carmona coming from behind to win it all are slim, but let's say he does. Since he already conceded the race, does that stand? Has it ever happened before (aside from 2000 presidential election) where a candidate conceded, and then after the dust settled, s/he went on to win? — Gabriel Zilnik, Raleigh, N.C.

A: Conceding only means you are stating the obvious: that it appears the election cannot be won. It's usually a gracious way of congratulating a victorious opponent.

Carmona conceded the race to Rep. Jeff Flake (R) on election night. But as the counting of votes continues, the margin is just under 4 percent (Flake's 49.61 percent to Carmona's 45.80 percent), with an estimated 163,482 ballots still to be counted. If, for argument's sake, all the remaining votes went to Carmona, he would be the winner, concession or not. Conceding the election does not supersede the actual vote totals. A concession has no legal standing.

Al Gore, as you alluded, conceded on election night 2000, only to "take it back" when Florida went from Bush to undecided. Ultimately, of course, he conceded once more — on Dec. 13.

Q: I heard somewhere that the total votes for Democrats running for the House this year exceeded the number of votes received by Republicans. Is that true? If so, it would seem a good talking point for the president when Mr. Boehner argues that the people elected the House they did to protect the country from Obama. — Robert R. Nesbit Jr., Augusta, Ga.

A: The way to get a majority in the House is by winning at least 218 seats, not by getting the most votes cast nationally. But, having said that, voters did give Democratic candidates for the House some 1 million votes more than they did for Republicans. Bloomberg News' Greg Giroux breaks it down even further in Businessweek:

"Democrats led Republicans by 56 million to 55 million votes nationally, according to unofficial tallies from The Associated Press. It's the first time since 1996 that one party won more House seats while winning fewer votes, according to data compiled by the House Clerk's office. The outcome is the product in part of Republican-dominated redrawing of House seat boundaries after the 2010 census and of population shifts.

"In North Carolina, Republican candidates garnered a total of 2.14 million votes in the 13 districts, winning nine. Democrats gained a total of 2.22 million votes, winning three districts and leading in a fourth.

"In Pennsylvania, Republicans won 13 of the 18 districts even as they lost the aggregate vote by 2.7 million to 2.6 million."

And speaking of total votes, this note came in from Phil Chronakis of Hoboken, N.J.:

"You said in your post-election column that the 'two-point-plus spread [of Obama over Romney] made it the fifth closest presidential election in more than a century, trailing only Kennedy-Nixon 1960, Bush-Gore 2000, Nixon-Humphrey 1968 and Carter-Ford 1976.'

"I submit that the Bush-Kerry 2004 election was also closer in the popular vote count (as measured by percentage) than last week's election. The percentage spread in 2004 was 2.46% in Bush's favor (50.73% to Kerry's 48.27%). The percentage spread in 2012, was 2.85% in Obama's favor (50.61% to Romney's 47.76%). Thus, 2012 becomes the SIXTH closest election in more than a century (or since 1888)."

Q: I hope I'm not the only one wondering if my vote is private, or if, like the Census Bureau, our votes get tabulated somewhere besides the ballot box. I ask this because I wonder where writers, such as yourself, find statistical evidence that states, for example:

"Obama won women by 11 points. He took 71 percent of Latinos, 73 percent of Asians, 93 percent of blacks. Sixty percent of voters under 30. Once upon a time, winning the white vote by a 61-39 percentage — as Romney did — would be enough for victory. Those days may be gone."

Where do you get this information? How is it collected? Is it a nonpartisan polling effort, or something a little more sinister? — Duane Magoon, Anchorage, Alaska

A: Nothing sinister. All of the demographic information — about gender and ethnicity and income and age and party preference, etc. — is compiled through exit polls conducted by Edison Research, a polling and survey company that tabulates this for members of their media clients (TV & radio networks and newspapers).

Q: The scenario in your Oct. 29 column — that Elizabeth Warren gets appointed to the Senate seat of Secretary of State-designate John Kerry — is of course now moot. She won. As to your point that it was unlikely for Gov. Deval Patrick to appoint a losing Senate candidate to a Senate seat: In 1946 Republican Henry Dworshak was elected to the Senate from Idaho to serve the last two years of the late John Thomas' term. In 1948, running for a full term, Dworshak was defeated by Bert Miller, who became a 69-year-old freshman in January 1949 and died in October. His appointed replacement was . . . Henry Dworshak, who kept the seat until his own death in 1962. — Jeff Rundell, Seattle, Wash.

A: Good stuff, thanks for this. You sound like, um, a political junkie.

Time for three more post-election comments that arrived in the in-box:

Jeani Rector of West Sacramento, Calif:

"I liked your nice and interesting analysis of the Romney defeat (see Nov. 12 Political Junkie, 'Who Gets the Blame for the Romney Loss? The Tea Party has an Idea.'). But for all the reasons given, I think it cannot be overstated: It was the women vote. Speaking as a woman, I can tell you that we reject the idea that Republicans want to force their fanatical religious and reproductive rights views on us. ... There are also the issues of appointments to the Supreme Court and the plan to defund Planned Parenthood. ... Also, many women believe that the GOP only cares about children BEFORE they are born. Afterwards, not so much. ... I cheer when the tea party extremists say that the reason Romney lost was because he was 'too moderate.' As a Democrat, I hope that the Tea Party doubles down on their fanaticism. Doing so would continue to drive the Republican Party into extinction. Remember: we women are watching. And voting."

Anne Franklin of Garfield, N.J.:

"I voted for Obama and I am relieved the election is over. Romney was the least sympathetic candidate I've ever seen. And that's a shame, because I'm no Obama fan. The president's attacks on Romney were relentless, many of them were truly mean spirited and personal, and I actually hesitated when I went into the voting booth. I take my vote very seriously, and while there was never a chance Romney would get it, I almost walked out of there and left the presidential vote blank. I don't know what message Obama got from the election, but it certainly wasn't a vote of confidence to continue all that negativity."

And Randy Baker in Springfield, Mo.:

"When the Republicans decide to run a Republican and not a RINO then they will win again. Someone with gonads, who doesn't put his finger in the wind. Until then: Libertarian it is! Frankly, it won't happen. There are too many on the left and right now with their hands out for their latest government trinket. Romney was right to a degree but it isn't 47% — it's more like 75%+ to one degree or another. Oh, so factual and sad!"

Political Junkie segment on Talk of the Nation. Each Wednesday at 2 p.m. ET, the Political Junkie segment appears on Talk of the Nation (NPR's call-in program), hosted by Neal Conan with me adding color commentary, where you can, sometimes, hear interesting conversation, useless trivia questions and sparkling jokes. Last week we offered up a "what's next" political show, with special guests Anna Greenberg (D) and Vin Weber (R).

And Don't Forget ScuttleButton. ScuttleButton, America's favorite waste-of-time button puzzle, can usually be found in this spot every Monday or Tuesday. A randomly selected winner will be announced every Wednesday during the Political Junkie segment on NPR's Talk of the Nation. You still have time to submit your answer to last week's contest, which you can see here. Sure, there's incredible joy in deciphering the answer, but the winner gets not only a TOTN T-shirt, but a 3-1/2-inch Official No-Prize Button! Is this a great country or what??

Last week's winner: Deirdre Carroll of Seattle, Wash.

Mailing list. To receive a weekly email alert about the new column and ScuttleButton puzzle, contact me at politicaljunkie@npr.org.

******* Don't Forget: If you are sending in a question to be used in this column, please include your city and state. *********

This day in political history: His credibility hanging in the balance, President Ronald Reagan holds a nationally televised press conference to defend his decision to secretly send arms to Iran in an attempt to buy freedom for American hostages being held by pro-Iranian groups in Lebanon. Reagan says the unsuccessful attempt may have been a "high-risk gamble," but it wasn't a "fiasco or a great failure of any kind." But Congress, which was kept in the dark about the effort, was furious, and Secretary of State George Shultz opposed the idea from the beginning (Nov. 19, 1986).

Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin: politicaljunkie@npr.org

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