Friday, December 14, 2012

In which I jump to a conclusion

Jonathan Bernstein jumped in early yesterday with a characteristic caution regarding Susan Rice's withdrawal of herself from consideration for Secretary of State:
I’d caution everyone to wait a bit before drawing any firm conclusions about what happened here. We don’t know she was Barack Obama’s first choice. We don’t know, if she was the top choice, why she didn’t wind up the pick. If outside objections mattered — say, from John McCain — we don’t know which ones mattered, and it’s not necessarily the loudest ones.
It's certainly true that we don't know everything Bernstein says we don't know. Nonetheless, when I saw the news, my own mind jumped to a conclusion simultaneous with processing it: shit, Obama caved. I consider that a significant data point, not because I'm particularly knowledgeable about this process or about Rice, but because I'm not. I think anyone who followed the course of this prospective nomination even casually would have leaped to the same conclusion. And those optics suggest a major White House failure, whatever the merits of Rice as Secretary of State.

Moreover, I think we do know enough to lament the way this affair was handled, if not the ultimate makeup of Obama's second-term foreign policy/national security team.  Rice's explanation embedded the assumption that she was Obama's choice, as any prolonged imagining of one's own confirmation process necessarily must. Her assertion that while the decision was hers, Obama "understood that I made the right decision" makes him complicit, in case anyone had any doubt that he elicited it.  Her claim that a "long, grueling confirmation battle" would have distracted from struggles to enact key legislation reinforces the perception that Obama is unwilling to confront determined opposition. Her assertion, "The position of Secretary of State should never be politicized" highlights the fact that her enemies successfully politicized it.

I think, too, that Ruth Marcus is dead on regarding Obama's sexualization of this political combat:
But then there is the president’s treatment of Rice, and the odd language, redolent of a more chivalrous age, that he used in launching an impassioned defense of Rice at his post-election press conference. If Rice’s Republicans critics “want to go after somebody, “they should go after me,” Obama proclaimed. “For them to go after the U.N. ambassador … and to besmirch her reputation is outrageous. … When they go after the U.N. ambassador, apparently because they think she’s an easy target, then they’ve got a problem with me.”

I am not saying that the president is sexist, not at all. But I think that phrasing is telling — besmirch her reputation, go after me, easy target — and I doubt the president would have used that language in coming to the defense of a man who was a potential nominee. And in coming out so gallantly in support of Rice, Obama unwittingly upped the expectational ante over her prospects: Why would he be so adamant if he didn’t know he wanted her?
(Re  those final italics: Marcus' explanation of water is itself a little wet, no?)

In short, I think Bernstein's admonishment is useful in that there may be good reasons for Obama either not ultimately choosing Rice or retreating if she was in fact his first choice.  But it's impossible not to "jump to the conclusion" that Rice's withdrawal was poorly handled. As Toby Harnden wondered:
Am puzzled by Rice-Obama exchange of letters. Why not just nominate John Kerry (or whoever) & suggest he was top SofS choice all along?
Especially if that eventual announcement could be coupled with announcement of a new position for Rice, e.g., National Security Adviser.  But maybe that's not in the cards either.

UPDATE: Kevin Drum floats a possible explanation for the handling of this "appalling affair," as he puts it:
I suppose the likeliest explanation is that, yes, it was just badly handled. But there's another possibility: Obama (a) wanted to give Rice every possible chance, and (b) wanted to make it crystal clear that Republican intransigence had killed the nomination. The latter has a couple of benefits. First, it's probably good PR for Team Obama. Second, it means that Senate Republicans have a scalp. The informal rules of Washington DC culture allow the opposition party to reject one or two nominees (John Tower, Zoƫ Baird, Tom Daschle) but then confirm the rest. By making Rice their scalp, it probably makes Obama's future nomination fights easier.
Reading this, I recalled a fleeting thought that I had while first processing the news of Rice's withdrawal: what if Obama knows of a pending Supreme Court retirement and effectively traded this nomination for that one?  I think that's redolent of the 'long game' fallacy and that, as Kevin's first thought above suggests, sheer reactive mishandling, or at best the final turn in an ever shifting calculus, is the likelier explanation.  But since this post is focused on reader response, or rather voter response, I might as well record that the thought did occur.

1 comment:

  1. It sounds like Chuck Hagel may possibly be the second scalp, if the noise I'm hearing about from the 'Israel Lobby' is any indication. Which may even count as a two-fer, since it's a Republican.