By Andrew Scoggin
Rice, reportedly once a heavy favorite to replace Hillary Clinton, faced the likelihood of a contentious Senate confirmation, having to appear before GOP lawmakers who heavily criticized her role in the response to the attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya. That September incident, which left four dead, became a major talking point for Republicans in the lead-up to and after the election.
Consider it a victory for congressional Republicans, who have had a rough go of it between the Supreme Court’s decision on Obamacare and the election. The legitimacy of their qualms aside, they wanted someone to take the blame for the Obama administration’s actions.
But there’s something bigger at play here, aside from tussling for political points. Rice stepping out could, in theory, give the GOP back a Senate seat they lost in November.
Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) is the hot new name for Secretary of State. He chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and his longtime Senate colleagues would likely give him an easy confirmation process (despite zingers like this).
And if Kerry becomes Secretary of State, that leaves his Senate seat vacant. Massachusetts law would call for a special election, last seen in 2010 after the death of Sen. Ted Kennedy. As we know, former Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) has a great track record in special elections (though not so much in general ones).
Gaining any Senate seat is huge for Republicans, but especially in a Democratic stronghold like Massachusetts. Brown has the name and apparatus in place to mount a strong campaign, and Democrats just spent a lot of time and money to replace him with Senator-elect Elizabeth Warren.
Of course, this Senate seat speculation is moot if President Barack Obama opts for someone else as the country’s chief diplomat. And while prominent politicians assumed the post in early America (like Thomas Jefferson or James Madison), the trend before Hillary Clinton was to pick outside of politics (like Colin Powell or Madeleine Albright).
Besides the GOP hullabaloo, the Obama administration has more important things to worry about, like this fiscal cliff thing we’ve all heard about so much. Rice said as much in her letter to Obama released Thursday:
“… if nominated, I am now convinced that the confirmation process would be lengthy disruptive and costly — to you and to our most pressing national and international priorities. That trade-off is simply not worth it to our country. It is far more important that we devote precious legislative hours and energy to enacting your core goals, including comprehensive immigration reform, balanced deficit reduction, job creation and maintaining a robust national defense and effective U.S. global leadership.”
That last sentence is especially important for the administration. If it can divert attention away from Cabinet nominations, it instead can focus on Obama’s goals for his second term on matters that will contribute much more to his legacy and more directly effect the direction of the country.
For Republicans, they may have won this round, but the Obama administration still holds a significant political advantage. The president was just reelected a month ago, and more people approve of his actions in fiscal cliff talks than House Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio).
So with Rice out of the limelight, it’s time for GOP lawmakers to lay off the Benghazi business and focus on the fiscal cliff, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) chief among them. His passion might be foreign affairs, but as a senior leader and former presidential nominee, it’s time he concentrated his efforts on more pressing matters.
After all, even if Republicans gain a Senate seat, they’re likely to shoulder more of the blame if Washington fails to reach a consensus on the fiscal cliff.