John McCain sounded awfully chastened yesterday. Gone was the bluster of doing "everything in my power to block" Susan Rice from a position she has yet to be nominated for. He didn't question her competence. The rage gave way to this Sunday morning walkback: "I think she deserves the ability and the opportunity to explain herself and her position, just as she said. But, she's not the problem. The problem is the president of the United States."
I doubt McCain is done being an angry, bitter man who still hasn't forgiven Rice for her attack on him during the 2008 presidential campaign. But someone must have told him that trashing an accomplished, relatively young woman of color who wasn't even remotely responsible for what happened in Benghazi is just not a good look these days. Maybe McCain underestimated how many people had Rice's back, from the Congressional Black Caucus to the president himself -- just as his fellow party members had underestimated the power of the voting bloc they commanded on Nov. 6.
Similarly, McCain has never been much of an enthusiastic culture warrior (derisive air quotes around women's health aside) but it was still striking how he basically suggested his party should cede the abortion issue after getting widely rejected by unmarried female voters. "As far as young women are concerned, absolutely, I don't think anybody like me -- I can state my position on abortion. But to -- other than that, leave the issue alone." It might not sound like much, but plenty on the right haven't quite forgiven Mitch Daniels for suggesting a "truce" on social issues back in 2010, and some of them still think Mitt Romney lost because he didn't talk about abortion enough.
Obama's firm defense of Rice and, at least during the campaign, of reproductive rights, are welcome signs of backbone among Democrats. Even before this month's electoral victories, the party seemed better organized and less apologetic than in recent memory. And no one better exemplifies the virtue of this moment than Sen. Patty Murray, a far less bombastic presence than her colleague McCain who has nonetheless managed to get lots done behind the scenes lately.
Last year, when Murray was put on the budget supercommittee -- the only woman, in fact -- Grover Norquist sniffed, “The Republicans are serious budget reformers. The lady from Washington doesn’t do budgets.” The serially underestimated Murray subsequently refused to bow to Republican intransigence on said committee, which ended with no deal. Now, as Norquist faces mounting defections, it's Murray who will chair the Senate Budget Committee -- commanding a majority she was instrumental in strengthening. And it's Murray who is arguing that Democrats should use their leverage and call the Republicans' bluff on the fiscal cliff without major compromise. Now who's "serious"?
There's something deeply satisfying about Murray taking, to paraphrase a recent Washington Post profile, all the crappy jobs no one else wanted and then kicking ass at them. That includes the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which she took over at a time when Democrats were supposedly going to lose the Senate. On her watch, no Democratic incumbent lost and a record number of women were elected. Along the way, she helped craft a key part of the winning message (which many of her colleagues overlooked at the time) -- maintaining federal funding to Planned Parenthood. That was both a substantive and symbolic victory before "coming for your birth control" was even a thing.
Discussing the 2011 budget negotiations -- in which defunding Planned Parenthood played an outsize role and the federal government was nearly shut down -- Murray told the Post that “I walked in, and I was literally the only woman. And I walked in and they said: ‘We’re all done except the House wants one last concession. They want us to give on that and we’re done.’ And I said: ‘Not on my watch. Absolutely not on my watch.'"
That's the sound of leadership, in this case, a female leader having the back of other women, just as Obama and fellow Democrats had Rice's against empty and unfair attacks. This might be an unfamiliar sound to McCain, but if he and fellow Republicans keep it up, they're right to be spooked.