Obama Haters

The GOP’s Absurd Attack on Susan Rice Over Benghazi

Michael Tomasky on the real scandal of Republican threats to filibuster Susan Rice as secretary of state.

Mario Tama

There would seem to be little connection between Nate Silver and Susan Rice, but hear me out. The New York Times electoral savant was said to be “controversial.” No one adduced a lick of factual evidence for why he should have been thought to be so, but people on the right just didn’t like his electoral predictions, so they tried to make him controversial. With respect to Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, much the same is true. In reality land, she’s done nothing that ought to be considered all that controversial. But again, conservatives don’t like the outcome—Democrats having the upper hand on foreign policy and national security—so they’re trying to make her controversial.

Let’s start at the beginning. What did Rice have to do with the Sept. 11 Benghazi attack? In all likelihood, absolutely nothing. Consular security is a State Department matter. The U.N. ambassador has no authority over such questions. If the matter of security in Benghazi was ever the subject of a principals-level meeting of the top national-security team, then maybe she was privy to a discussion. But it’s certainly not her decision. The only outpost whose security she’s responsible for is the one in Turtle Bay.

For a while one heard conservatives ask, well, if this wasn’t her gig, then why did the administration send her out there on those Sunday shows Sept. 16? It didn’t prove much, this question, one way or the other, but it was a fair enough point. This past Sunday, The New York Times’ reporting answered it. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton should have been the one to do those shows, and she was asked first, but she said no.

So Rice was just being a good team player. She said what she was told by intelligence agencies to say. If you look over her remarks, they were invariably carefully couched, to each host: “the best information we have at present,” she said to NBC’s David Gregory. So it was. As The Wall Street Journal and others have reported, the intel assessments were changing the day she was on those shows, but she didn’t yet know that.

I realize all this sounds very suspicious to Obama haters. But this is how the world goes sometimes. David Petraeus has confirmed that while he knew or sensed from the start that it was a terrorist attack, America’s 16 intelligence agencies weren’t ready to say that publicly, mostly for fear of tipping off the bad guys. So Rice said what she was told to say.

John McCain, I’d bet, knows all the above and isn’t even really mad at her. He’s mad at two other things. Well, three other things. First, he’s mad he’s not the president, and the president’s the president. Second, he, and many Republicans, are pissed off that Obama paid no electoral price for the Benghazi attack. This is all but inconceivable to them because in the ecosystem in which they thrive, Benghazi is bigger than Watergate, Waterloo, and waterboarding combined. They can’t understand or accept that many middle Americans don’t share their outrage.

But most middle Americans recognize Benghazi for what it was—a terribly sad tragedy, but the kind of thing that, in a dangerous world, happens. And yes, many middle Americans would consider it a smudge on the administration’s security record, but most middle Americans also know that record is otherwise rather impressive. It seems to me someone just ran for president trying to argue otherwise, and he lost pretty handily.

And finally and maybe most of all, McCain and others are furious that the Republicans have lost their “natural” advantage on national-security issues. They are desperate to change that, and the quickest way to start doing so is to get Rice’s scalp.

A few weeks ago, I didn’t care much which candidate Obama chose for Foggy Bottom. Now I really hope he names Rice. First of all, I’m sorry, John Kerry, I know this is a lifelong dream, but it would be irresponsible of Obama to take a Democrat out of the Senate at this crucial time. Massachusetts’s Democratic governor, Deval Patrick, would name a temporary appointment, and then there would be an election shortly thereafter. I think that’s a recipe for putting Scott Brown right back in the Senate and thus losing the seat. I think Brown, assuming he’d like to run, could beat any of the Bay State’s Democratic congressmen. There’s just no way Obama should even think about losing one Senate seat.

But more to the point, I want to see this Rice fight. I want to see McCain stand up there and filibuster the choice of the president for secretary of state right after that president won a not-really-close-at-all reelection bid in a year when the Republicans thought they were going to recapture the White House. “When President Clinton was reelected for his second term, I didn’t share the policy views of some of the officials he nominated, but I do not recall going through protracted battles such as this,” said a senator on Jan. 26, 2005. “We all have varying policy views, but the president, in my view, has a clear right to put into place the team he believes will serve him best.”

Yep, that was McCain speaking in behalf of Condi Rice’s nomination. She was confirmed 85-13. At the time, 13 against was considered a lot, and Republicans groused about that. If McCain wants to round up 12 colleagues to cast no votes as an act of symbolism, fine. Tit for tat. But are they really considering filibustering the president’s choice to be the nation’s leading diplomat? That would constitute, among other things, an interesting form of minority outreach from the party that now says it’s so serious about winning over people of color. That party’s only two targets right now are Rice and Attorney General Eric Holder. Gee, what might they have in common, d’you think?

I don’t know that Rice deserves the job more than any other living American. But I do know for sure that she doesn’t not deserve it because of some remarks she made on TV. The only scandal here, as usual, is what the Republicans are up to.