President Obama came out with guns blazing at today's news conference, his first since re-election, pushing back hard against Republican senators' disparaging remarks about U.N. ambassador Susan Rice, Washington's odds-on favorite to get the nod as America's next secretary of state.
The president may indeed be genuinely outraged that one of his reportedly closest advisors is taking heat for the Sept. 11 snafu in Benghazi -- a situation Rice had nothing to do with. He repeated the administration's claim that when Rice took to the airwaves on Sept. 16 to explain the events in Libya, she was merely working with what the intelligence community had given her. And as far as we know, that's precisely what happened. (Benghazi isn't really the reason senators are objecting to Rice anyway, but that's for another post.)
But it's not hard to see the politics behind why Obama chose to confront the senators, mainly John McCain and Lindsey Graham, both of whom immediately fired back on the Senate floor. Neither man is especially beloved in the Republican caucus, and they may well be out of step with what Minority Leader Mitch McConnell wants to do. Moderates like Bob Corker, the presumed new ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, have played their cards close to the chest. If the White House can isolate McCain and Graham, then it shouldn't be too hard to come up with the 60 votes needed for cloture and an up-or-down vote (should Rice in fact be nominated). If and when Rice's name comes down next January, Democrats will be working with a 55-45 majority, so finding five Republican defectors ought to be easy.
Interestingly, some of the political types seem to have perked up during this little spat. Bill Burton, who co-ran Obama's SuperPAC, tweeted earlier today, "McCain's illogical & vicious attacks on Susan Rice seem politically idiotic coming off a GOP whoopin' from women voters across the country." Political guru David Axelrod added later, "POTUS strongly & appropriately smacks down McCain and Graham for their shameless, dishonest attacks on Susan Rice, a great public servant." (Rice's spokesperson at the U.S.-U.N. office, Erin Pelton, retweeted that one.)
One doesn't want to make too much of a few tweets, but it sure looks to me like the Obama people are double-dog daring Republicans to try to block -- or otherwise trip up -- the nomination of an African-American woman to a cabinet post following an election when the GOP got clobbered among women and minority voters. A lot of Republicans are taking a hard look at the demographic cliff right now, and they don't like what they see. Would they really want to risk a Sonya Sotomayor redux?