I don’t doubt it. Senator John Kerry could be a close to perfect Secretary of State. All aspects of his life have prepared him for the job, save for running a large bureaucracy. UN Ambassador Susan Rice has been touted as the President’s first choice. They have been close allies since she started advising him on foreign policy in 2007. He’s been unequivocal in his public support for her. Yet the mere fact that some Obama aides are saying that the President is conflicted about the selection, as reported in The National Journal, may mean the planets are starting to align for Kerry.
Some Republican Senate leaders are adamant in their opposition to Rice, based largely on the hollow criticism of how she handled communications in the wake of Benghazi. The Wall St. Journal has further chronicled alleged missteps of Rice on United Nations human rights issues, on discerning Al Qaeda movement in Libya, on thwarting Iran’s nuclear capability and in failing to show up for Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech in September. She is also faulted for her work on Rwanda and Ethiopia when she was Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs during the Clinton Administration. Her diplomatic skills regarding the Congo have also been called into question. Others have reasonably questioned her diplomatic temperament.
There are probably at least two sides to these issues, but, at this point, it’s hard to avoid the sense that the President’s oft-stated commitment to Rice is bred, in large part, by their longstanding working relationship and close friendship. Kerry, who has long helped Obama in big ways, would likely be a more independent minded Secretary of State. Republican Senators have made clear that, if Rice is nominated for Secretary of State, they would mount protracted opposition.
Timing is everything. Hillary Clinton has made clear her intention to leave at the end of the President’s first term. Certainly, with the fiscal cliff looming, the President shouldn’t be expending political capital in nominating Rice.
Those same anti-Rice Senators (John McCain, Lindsey Graham and others) are positively inclined toward a Kerry nomination. And it’s not just because he is one of their own, a close collaborator of McCain stemming from their Vietnam experience. It’s bald-faced politics, with the Republicans more interested in creating a glide path for Scott Brown to return to the Senate.
Kerry is suited to the post by both temperament and experience. As Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and a member for more than a quarter of a century, he has dealt with foreign leaders at the highest level and has long been a player in the international arena.
He rose to national awareness testifying before the Foreign Relations Committee in 1971 as a young Vietnam vet opposed to the war. Those very statements, however, (and his symbolically burning his military medals) could make his fallback nomination as Secretary of Defense as controversial as Susan Rice’s nomination to State. If Obama named Rice to State and Kerry to Defense, that would unleash a vitriolic reprise of the Swift Boat attacks launched against him as the Democratic nominee in 2004. Admirably, John “live shot” Kerry has been keeping his own counsel in all of this, both in the context of national and Bay State politics.
Concern about whether Scott Brown would likely be elected to fill Kerry’s position in the Senate are legitimate. Despite a ten-vote margin in January, a disproportionate eight Democratic Senators are up for reelection in 2014, potentially jeopardizing control of the upper branch. But gloom and doom of a Mitch McConnell-led Senate failed to materialize in the recent election and shouldn’t be determinative here. Besides, Brown may well want instead to run for governor in 2014, a post for which he might be a better fit.
One intriguing gambit would be for Obama to appoint retiring octogenarian Republican Senator Richard Lugar, defeated in his primary by a Tea Party candidate. Lugar has been Kerry’s counterpart on the Foreign Relations Committee for years, and was a close friend of Obama’s during his Senate days.
The next 12 to18 months are paramount for Obama’s agenda. Afterwards, he’s a lameduck. Members will be focused more on their own re-elections. Lugar’s nomination would have bi-partisan appeal and preserve Kerry’s vote for Obama’s big issues like immigration, environment and tax reform. Afterward, Lugar could retire and Obama appoint Kerry for the duration.
Governor Patrick could then appoint a replacement, without changing state law and not needing a (low turnout) special election. I doubt, however, this contorted scenario will play out.
In any event, Kerry is the best choice for Secretary of State, and free-floating anxieties about Massachusetts politics and Senate control shouldn’t deprive the nation of the person probably best suited for this all-important post.
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