McCain vs. Obama, the sequel

The GOP hasn't shared the Arizona senator's zeal for stopping Susan Rice's appointment -- at least not yet

Topics: Barack Obama, Lindsey Graham, Opening Shot, John McCain, Benghazi, Susan Rice,

Barack Obama has said nothing directly about whom he’ll appoint to replace Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, but he sent what the political world is regarding as a clear signal when he emphatically vouched for Susan Rice’s integrity last week.

If Obama does nominate Rice, the current U.N. ambassador and his longtime friend, it will create a very public showdown between the president and the man he defeated in 2008. The question is whether John McCain, who has emerged as the GOP’s loudest Rice critic and who has pledged to block her nomination, is fighting this battle by himself – or if he can bring the rest of the Republican Party along with him.

If stopping Rice at all costs were to become a GOP priority, her nomination would be in serious jeopardy. Republicans will have 45 votes when the new Senate convenes in January, more than enough to uphold a filibuster. Plus, if Rice were nominated and it became an all-out partisan battle, Republicans would potentially be able to win over a few red state Democrats, who might feel home state pressure to side against Obama. West Virginia’s Joe Manchin comes to mind here.

But even by the standards of today’s filibuster-happy Senate, it would be somewhat extraordinary for the GOP to unite and block a nominee for secretary of state – especially given how weak the case against Rice actually is.

The U.N. ambassador is the focal point of McCain’s attacks on the administration’s handling of the Sept. 11 Benghazi attack. In the days following the assault, which killed Libyan ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans, Rice was the public face of the White House’s response, communicating a preliminary assessment that it had been a spontaneous product of a demonstration. Rice’s words were based on CIA-approved talking points, but David Petraeus, who recently stepped down as CIA director, testified behind closed doors Friday that he immediately concluded Benghazi had been a coordinated terrorist strike. McCain contends that Rice either showed incompetence in sticking to the talking points for several days or was engaged in a willful cover-up.

“I will do everything in my power to block her from being the United States secretary of state,” he vowed last week.



On Sunday, McCain seemed to take it a step further, suggesting to “Face the Nation’s” Bob Schieffer that no Clinton replacement at State be approved “until we find out all the information as to what happened” in Benghazi.

Certainly, McCain is succeeding in irritating the White House, as Obama’s defense of Rice in his press conference last week demonstrated. As I’ve written previously, this is not exactly new conduct for the Arizonan; it’s how he tends to react when he loses. In the aftermath of his 2000 defeat in the Republican presidential primaries, he recast himself as a renegade Republican, aligning himself with Democrats on a number of key issues and emerging as a major thorn in the side of the new Bush White House. Now, a decade later, he’s using his perch in the Senate to make life as miserable as he can for Obama.

But for now, it doesn’t look like the rest of his party is with him on the Rice matter. Notably on Sunday, McCain’s closest Senate ally, Lindsey Graham, wouldn’t join in threatening to filibuster Rice during a “Meet the Press” appearance:

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM:
I don’t know. You know, I’m deferential to the President’s picks. I voted for Kagan and Sotomayor. Senator Obama voted against John Bolton, Alito and Roberts. He had a very high bar for confirmation. I have a very low bar. I’m going to listen to what Susan Rice has to say, put her entire record in context. But I’m not going to give her a plus for passing–

DAVID GREGORY:
But you’re –

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM:
– around a narrative that was misleading to the American people.

DAVID GREGORY:
You wouldn’t filibuster her nomination.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM:
And whether she knew it was misleading or not. I’m going to wait and see what the State Department’s review has. But I’m very disappointed in Susan Rice, somebody who knew nothing about Benghazi, telling a story that was disconnected from reality, that did make the president look good at a time where, quite frankly, the narrative should have been challenged, not reinforced that al-Qaeda was dismantled. That’s what they wanted us to believe, that al-Qaeda was dismantled. And Benghazi was Exhibit A that that storyline was not working and was untrue.

This came a few days after another Republican senator, Marco Rubio, said he wouldn’t “pre-judge” Rice’s potential nomination, and just as another McCain ally – Joe Lieberman – said on “Fox News Sunday” that “as I look at what we now know the intelligence community was saying that week and I look at Ambassador Rice’s statements on television on the following Sunday morning, I don’t find anything inconsistent between those two.” Granted, Lieberman isn’t a Republican and is leaving the Senate in January, but his words suggest McCain isn’t gaining the kind of traction in Washington he’d need to actually block Rice.

Which means that, as Dave Weigel recently wrote, a Susan Rice nomination would probably end about the same way Condoleezza Rice’s secretary of state nomination ended eight years ago: with the opposition party making plenty of noise, but not actually filibustering.

Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki writes about politics for Salon. Reach him by email at SKornacki@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornacki

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