Susan Rice’s announcement that she was dropping out of consideration to succeed Hillary Clinton at State went off like a bomb in a Washington suffering post-election depression and bored with fiscal-cliff negotiations.
But while it launched a juicy new wave of buzz, the decision didn’t come as much of a shock to Beltway types, who say Rice didn’t really have many alternatives—and certainly no good ones.
“This wasn’t going to go away,” observes former State Department official P.J. Crowley, referring to the accusations that Rice misled the public regarding the Benghazi attack of September 11, 2012. “The coup de grace was probably Sen. McCain hinting he’d move over to the Foreign Relations Committee”—thus positioning himself to lead the evisceration of Rice during confirmation hearings.
“Susan is tough and a fighter, but also a realist. She wouldn't have given up if things weren't looking pretty bad,” says a former administration official. “Knowing her—and the POTUS—they must have thought they couldn't get the nomination through.”
“Susan made the right decision,” says another administration insider. “There’s nothing she could have done differently, since it’s always difficult to get too far out in front of the White House. The real problem was a White House that left her hanging out as a pseudo-nominee without any of the support a nominee would have had.”
Not that this insider really blames the president. “Obama was great,” the person insists. It’s just that “no one focused on this until it was too late.” By that point, the president simply didn’t have many options.
Crowley agrees that Rice was to some degree a victim of bad timing. It’s hard to know how hard to push back against such accusations in the midst of a tough presidential race without becoming a part of the campaign yourself, he notes.
But at least one former policy official is a bit more cynical about the president’s role in all this, theorizing that Obama has long been planning to “throw Rice overboard as part of reaching a fiscal-cliff deal. I figured that would be one of the Republican demands.”
Crowley, too, smells politics at play, though of a different kind. “From John McCain to Susan Collins to others, [Republicans] are making no secret that if John Kerry is the nominee to be secretary of state, he’ll have no trouble. You can’t dismiss the politics,” asserts Crowley, “not just in terms of trying to draw some blood from the president but in potentially opening up a Senate seat to recompetition in Massachusetts.”
The former policy official sees the potential for tremendous irony in that electoral calculation: “Now watch him go and name Bill Burns rather than Kerry.”