With presumptive Democratic Party nominee Joe Biden’s prospects for the White House looking increasingly rosy, more Democrats are finding themselves in the camp that believes in not rocking any boats.
Which is why some in the party have found it peculiar that the former vice president appears to be increasingly considering one of the seemingly riskier picks for a VP of his own.
Susan Rice, who was national security adviser to President Barack Obama, has become a major player in the veepstakes. And for good reason. She is a deeply familiar figure for both Biden and some in his inner circle, as well as a steady hand who could offer him governing support from the get-go. She is also, however, a deeply familiar figure to Trump and his dedicated supporters—in that she’s a villain at the heart of numerous Obama-era outrages that have animated conservatives for years, from the attack at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi to the beginning of the investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties with Russia.
Choosing Rice, many Democrats fear, would reinvigorate Trump’s so-far flat attempts to recreate his 2016 win by sticking Biden with some of the same story lines that dogged Hillary Clinton in 2016. Republicans maintain that few Democratic rile up the GOP base—and juice their fundraising numbers—like Obama’s former national security hand, and insist that they’d welcome Biden elevating her to the ticket.
“Rice is extremely accomplished and experienced and would obviously help a President Biden tremendously on national security, but on the political side, unfortunately, she has been the target of crazy right-wing hate for years,” said one Democratic aide, who requested anonymity to discuss the vice presidential selection candidly. “The things they say about her have little connection to reality, but that didn’t stop people from voting against Hillary Clinton in 2016 for similar reasons.”
Rice was not talked about as a logical VP pick early on in the process, owing mainly to the fact that she’s never held elected office before. But her name is now increasingly mentioned alongside Sens. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) as a potential running mate. That’s sparked some consternation in the party. But there is also a growing cohort of Democrats arguing that the Obama stalwart could help cleanse the party of its lingering 2016 fears, and drive a stake through the web of right-wing conspiracies that Trump loves to leverage against his opponents.
“The Republicans will viciously attack whoever Biden picks as VP,” Tommy Vietor, the former Obama spokesperson at the National Security Council, said in an email to The Daily Beast. “The dishonest attacks against Susan over Benghazi are the definition of old news, and no one wants to relive that right-wing Fox News fever dream in the middle of a pandemic… Susan Rice is brilliant. Joe Biden knows her and trusts her, and she would be ready to govern on day one. That's all that matters."
“Picking her,” said one Democratic foreign policy aide, “would send an important sign that Biden is willing to tell the conspiratorial right to go fuck themselves.”
The dilemma over Rice’s place on the VP shortlist has brought to the forefront many of the strategic debates that Democrats continue to grapple with nearly four years after the 2016 election. The party is wary of adopting the same risk-averse approach that defined Clinton’s bid. But they’re also confident that Trump is self-immolating and fearful that handing him a distraction to use would be political malpractice.
All things Benghazi would probably “flare back up,” conceded a top Democratic Party bundler who is backing Rice as VP, before adding that “the GOP’s lack of investigative action the last three years has shown it was always a hollow.”
The Biden campaign declined to comment about consideration of Rice as a running mate.
Rice’s accomplishments are hardly the stuff of a political novice. She held various high-profile diplomatic and national security posts in the Bill Clinton White House before spending the George W. Bush years as a Brookings Institution foreign policy expert, a perch from which she advised high-profile Democrats, including then-candidate Obama. When Obama won, she became a significant presence through the entirety of his presidency, serving as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during his first term and then national security adviser during his second.
That record put Rice at the center of the 2012 attacks on the U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya, during which she became the target of GOP outrage for asserting that the attack—which killed four Americans—had grown out of a protest, a claim that remains unclear. But the remarks ultimately helped sink Rice’s standing as a possible successor to Clinton as secretary of state, though the GOP-commissioned Benghazi report later found she had been informed by mistaken intelligence and hadn’t committed any wrongdoing. Her role in the episode was scrutinized again in 2016, with some saying she “took the fall” for Clinton, who was secretary of state during Benghazi.
More recent grist for Trump and his backers is Rice’s involvement in a perceived scandal relating to then-candidate Trump in 2016: the surveillance of Trump associates who were communicating with foreign individuals. Americans who are swept into this kind of surveillance typically have their identities hidden from U.S. officials, but they can be revealed, or “unmasked,” if there’s a national security imperative for doing so.
In spring 2017, it was reported that Rice had ordered the unmasking of Trump associates who had been communicating with foreign officials. Trump took it a step further, alleging she had leaked the identities to the press and broken the law, a claim she categorically denies and for which there is no supporting evidence.
And in May, the Trump administration declassified an email that Rice sent to herself on the day of Obama’s handover of power to Trump, which referenced concerns from then-FBI Director James Comey that Trump’s team had been in contact with Russian agents. Rice’s successor-to-be, Michael Flynn, had been in contact with the Russian ambassador, though Comey did not know about what. Trump’s allies have used the email to bolster the theory that Obama, on his way out of office, had initiated a program of surveillance on Trump, while Rice has strongly contended otherwise.
Asked how the president’s campaign might respond to Biden choosing Rice as a running-mate, a Trump spokesperson declined to say specifically, only noting that “no vice presidential candidate” can fix Biden’s problems. A GOP strategist, however, told The Daily Beast that when it comes to ginning up conservative campaign contributions, Warren might be most effective as a foil, “but I’d put Rice up there as well.”
But Rory Cooper, a longtime Republican strategist and critic of the president, argued that Rice’s perceived baggage wasn’t really baggage at all, since Biden himself was a more powerful symbol for the Obama era than anyone else associated with it.
“If they are licking their chops,” said Cooper, “frankly, it confirms they can’t manage a campaign worth a damn.”
For some Democrats, the idea of not picking Rice because of fear of what Trump might do in response to it resembles a defensive strategy of a bygone era. The president is bound to attack whoever is chosen, the logic goes, making it foolish to proactively cede the ground.
“Susan Rice is absolutely one of the most qualified people in the bracket right now,” said Molly Claflin, an attorney at good-government group American Oversight and a former staffer for Senate Democrats on the Russia investigation. “If you’ve got a highly-qualified, incredibly well-respected foreign policy thinker—is the possibility of Fox News attack pieces enough to deprive the American people of having that very experienced person on the ticket?... That’s letting Fox News win.”
But a Rice selection wouldn’t just present challenges to Biden’s right: her joining the ticket also bears the risk of upsetting some in the progressive wing of the party that Biden has worked to win over since the 2020 primary effectively ended. Yasmine Taeb, a Democratic National Committeewoman in Virginia, said in an email there’s concern that Rice “represents an establishment thinking on national security and foreign policy.”
“We don't like her, right? She's not someone that the left would be happy with and I think that would be a mistake for the Biden team to go with Rice,” said Taeb, who also works as senior policy counsel for Demand Progress and endorsed Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) in the 2020 primary.
Others were less concerned with Rice, expressing faith in whatever final verdict Biden comes to.
Bill Shaheen, a DNC member from New Hampshire who endorsed Biden ahead of the state’s February primary, downplayed the idea that the controversy surrounding Rice and Benghazi could hurt Biden if he picks the former Obama administration official.
“I think the American people are not going to want to go back to Benghazi,” Shaheen said. “They want to build this country back up again.”
And some were skeptical that Rice would end up as Biden’s pick at all. While she has a personal working relationship with the former veep that other contenders lack, her areas of strength overlap with his—a disadvantage in a process that, historically, is meant to bolster a candidate’s areas of weakness.
Biden has experience on foreign policy, said Joe Trippi, who managed former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential run, which means it’s likely the one place he doesn’t need more help on when it comes to governing.
“I don't know that it'll be Rice, mostly because that's an area that Biden has covered, not because of any vulnerability that gets created," Trippi said.
—with reporting from Scott Bixby and Sam Stein