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Kerry: In The Shadow Of Rice's Firestorm

Fri, November 30, 2012 7:50pm

Story by Scott Neuman


Committe Chairman John Kerry , D-MA, speaks during the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the nomination of Robert Beecroft to be ambassador to Iraq Sept. 19 in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.

President Obama has yet to make known his choice to replace Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, but plenty of Republicans have made theirs: John Kerry.

And that puts the Massachusetts senator and former Democratic presidential nominee in a bit of a bind. As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he'd normally be one of the loudest voices defending U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice against GOP attacks that she mishandled her role in explaining an attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi. But she's the other top contender for the Cabinet post.

In September, as Republicans homed in on Rice for what she said in television interviews about the consulate attack, Kerry came to her defense, rebuffing calls that she resign and describing her as "a remarkable public servant."

But, two months is a long time in politics, and Kerry seems to be following the approved principle of parsimony for potential nominees — to say no more than is necessary.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, Maine Sen. Susan Collins joined the chorus of Republicans supporting Kerry, whose selling point seems to be not only his impressive credentials, but also his likely ease of confirmation by the Senate.

"I think John Kerry would be an excellent appointment and would be easily confirmed by his colleagues," Collins said.

It is worth noting amid this developing love fest that having been the Democratic Party's presidential nominee also means that not so many years ago Kerry was the singular foe of the Republican Party. In a demonstration of how tight the collegiality of the Senate can be, Kerry's long and high-profile past is more easily forgiven than is the brief, disputed history of Rice.

Some commentators see an ulterior motive in the GOP support for Kerry: a vacant U.S. Senate seat with Scott Brown's name on it. The Republican was ousted in this month's election by Democrat Elizabeth Warren. But others are quick to point out that if Kerry doesn't get the secretary of state's job, he'll be a top contender for Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta's job when he departs.

Either way, Kerry would leave that Senate seat wide open. Still, that might not be as dangerous a prospect as it sounds for Democrats, says Steven Balla, a political science professor at George Washington University.

"I don't know in this environment whether Republicans could win it," he says. "It was an interesting set of circumstances that led Scott Brown to be elected a few years back, but it strikes me that it would be a long shot for that to happen again."

Kerry may be keeping quiet in public, but behind closed doors is another matter, says James D. King, a professor of political science at the University of Wyoming.

The senator and his staff "are going to be letting the president's key advisers know of their interest and perhaps the president's advisers will be secretly trying out other options," King says.

"No president wants to come out and say, 'This is the person I want' and have that be declined," he says.

Rewind to 1993, when newly elected President Bill Clinton's nomination of Zoe Baird for attorney general went down in flames. Baird's chances were scuttled when it was learned that she'd hired illegal immigrants to work as a nanny and chauffeur.

While the White House has taken pains to defend Rice in what some interpret as a sign she's the one, there's been no official announcement to that effect. In contrast, Baird's nomination was "out there and it was clear that it was the president's choice," says King.

"In this case, we have controversy swirling around a potential nominee in which speculation is coming from everywhere but the White House," he says.

And that creates a problem of its own for President Obama, he says.

"If he delays, it just feeds the speculation about the appointment and whether she's going to get it and what this all might mean," King says. "It's a very odd situation and one that you don't see very often in presidential appointments."

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