SAN DIEGO — Which political party is behaving worse with regard to the possible nomination of U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice to become secretary of state?
It’s a close call. Both Republicans and Democrats have embarrassed themselves where Rice is concerned.
First, the GOP is obviously struggling with a little misplaced frustration over the election that got away, and many lawmakers are channeling it toward Rice.
What seems to bother Republicans is not just that the attack on an American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, failed to gain traction during the final weeks of the campaign. It’s the lack of accountability on the part of the Obama administration.
They are understandably flummoxed that the White House did not pay a political price for its clumsy response to what we now know was a terrorist assault on Sept. 11. The attack – in which the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans were killed – was initially attributed to a spontaneous protest against an anti-Muslim YouTube video.
It would have been helpful to Republicans if the picture about what happened in Benghazi – and how badly the administration bungled its response – had come into focus before votes were cast. It didn’t work out that way, and the Democrats dodged a bullet.
Republicans have to blame someone. And that someone is Rice, who stands accused of acting as a mouthpiece for the White House and misrepresenting the facts when she appeared on five different Sunday morning talk shows on Sept. 16.
The maddening part is that Republicans are right about how poorly Rice handled those interviews. She should have simply said she didn’t know all the facts. Instead, she pushed the line about how this was a protest against a video. It’s also disconcerting that – as Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine said after meeting with the ambassador – Rice seems to have “decided to play what was essentially a political role at the height of a contentious presidential election campaign” by going on the shows to advance White House talking points.
Republicans are foolish to focus mainly on Rice, who really is little more than a bit player in the aftermath of the Benghazi attack. They should aim higher, and question the actions of the State Department, the CIA and the White House. Republicans have also lost sight of what’s really important in all this. And it’s not whether the administration was putting out the story about the video past the point where it knew this was actually a terrorist attack.
What really matters is whether the administration abandoned its own diplomats who were under siege at the U.S. Consulate for more than seven hours, and whether the White House failed to provide backup for two valiant former Navy SEALs who tried to render aid and managed to pull most of the diplomatic personnel to safety before being killed. Those are the questions that need answers, and Republicans need to avoid any distractions that lead them in another direction.
Meanwhile, Democrats need to avoid a messy fight over a Cabinet nomination when there are much bigger issues to deal with. This will surely be an uphill climb that wastes a lot of political capital. The controversy surrounding Rice and her comments on television raise questions about whether she is the most qualified choice to be America’s top diplomat. She has too much baggage.
Why wouldn’t Obama go with a more seasoned pick such as Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, who is known to covet the job and has the backing of key Republican senators?
The answer: stubbornness. In his first term, Obama was fond of reminding Republicans that he won an election and there were consequences. Now that he’s won another one, he once again has the opportunity to rub his opponents’ noses in their own defeat by nominating Rice over their objections.
The president is right that elections have consequences. This is his call. He has earned it. But he should use his power wisely. Picking a fight over Rice, just because he can, poisons his relationship with GOP lawmakers.
Nor is it wise, or in particularly good taste, for some of Rice’s defenders in Congress to accuse her detractors of racism and sexism. Those tactics smack of desperation, and they don’t help anyone – least of all Rice.
If he looked around, Obama would see that he has plenty of good choices for secretary of state. But Susan Rice isn’t one of them.
Ruben Navarrette is a columnist for U-T San Diego. Reach him at [email protected]