Susan Rice, ambassador to the UN, on Thursday withdrew her name from consideration to replace Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of State. Among the Washington chattering classes, this move raises an obvious question: Did Ambassador Rice jump, or was she pushed?
In other words, did she end her bid for Foggy Bottom on her own? Or did the White House tell her it was time to do the loyal thing and not plunge the administration into a contentious nomination battle?
We’ll tell you up top our belief: It was a blend of these reasons, heavier on the latter than the former. In our experience, that’s how Washington works.
First, the background. Rice is no one’s idea of a diplomatic diplomat. She’s been a tough, verbal presence as America’s person at the United Nations. Reportedly on Thursday, she characterized China’s response to North Korea’s missile launch as “ridiculous.”
She’s also one of President Obama’s earliest and staunchest national supporters. She served Mr. Obama as a top foreign policy adviser when he started his run for the Oval Office in 2007.
Sometimes her words have landed her in trouble. The most famous instance of this was her insistence in September on five Sunday talk shows that the Benghazi attack, which killed the US ambassador to Libya, was a spontaneous uprising instead of a preplanned terrorist attack.
The administration has pointed to CIA talking points as the basis for that misstatement. Senate Republicans have said they suspect she was providing political cover for a president just prior to an election.
Now, the thickened plot. In an attempt to answer the concerns of GOP senators who would be crucial to any nomination battle, such as Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Rice went on a visiting tour of Capitol Hill following Obama’s reelection. It’s almost unthinkable that she would have done this without White House approval; whether they asked her to do it is unknown.
What Rice found was that opposition to her candidacy was undiminished. We won’t debate the merits of that here. Suffice it to say that even moderate GOP Sen. Susan Collins of Maine criticized Rice following a 90-minute meeting.
This Senate round accomplished two things. First, it put the White House on notice that it would have to fight to get Rice to fill Secretary Clinton’s chair. Second, it showed this to Rice herself. She was left with little doubt as to exactly what would happen if she sat before the TV lights in a Senate confirmation hearing.
Now, partisans outside power are often eager for their elected favorites to take up a battle. But presidents and their officials know that their capacity for such fights is limited. Most voters don’t like the wrangling; political allies dislike having to rally to arms if they think it unnecessary; the time and energy spent on planning take a heavy staff toll.
Obama knows this. Rice knows it, too. We have no idea – yet – what words passed between them in regard to the secretary of State office. But in the context of the opening of the president’s second term, with the “fiscal cliff” problem unresolved and big issues such as immigration reform still on the table, Obama did not need a confirmation battle that could be avoided. Realistically, Rice had little choice but to take her name out of the mix for what would have been a big promotion.
She did the loyal thing. In politics, loyalty is a river that runs most strongly toward the top. In return, she’s still positioned for bigger things. Even if she’d won confirmation as secretary of State, she’d have remained a congressional target, and questions about Libya and Benghazi would have dogged her days. Now she remains UN ambassador, with the possibility of an eventual appointment as national security adviser, a job over which the Senate has no say.
And who knows? Four years is a long time in politics. She may yet have a chance at the prize she has foresworn – after secretary. John Kerry might get tired of the traveling.