GOP Won the Susan Rice Battle, But Is Losing the Real Policy War

Republicans created the controversy over Susan Rice as secretary of state because they needed something to target President Obama with before the election.

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Some Republicans on the Hill may be feeling empowered and a little gleeful that they managed to convince U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice to withdraw from consideration for secretary of state before she was even nominated for the post. In fact, they have just unilaterally disarmed themselves.

The faux fight over Rice was never really about her, anyway. Republicans needed a controversy to taint President Obama before the election. The struggling economy wasn't working as they'd planned as a campaign-killer for the incumbent (and Republicans were understandably perplexed by that fact). So they added in the claim that Obama lacks leadership and competence, and used the horrific Benghazi attacks to illustrate it. Still, the American public did not oust Obama based on accusations that he misled the public about what caused the Benghazi attacks or covered up what really happened.

[Take the U.S. News Poll: Should Susan Rice Have Withdrawn From Secretary of State Consideration?]

After the election, the blame over a largely manufactured controversy fell more squarely on Rice, who was the point person the administration put on TV to repeat the conclusions American intelligence agencies had made. If there was misinformation or incomplete information, it was coming from intelligence-gatherers, not from Rice.

But Republicans, a bit chastened by an election in which they lost the White House as well as a handful of seats in the House and Senate, took the issue and ran with it—not because there was any real scandal there, but because they wanted to slap down the president a bit after his win. They declared they would delay or even thwart Rice's nomination, claiming she had outright lied to the American public. They said she had "sharp elbows"—a trait even 21st century lawmakers find unattractive on a woman. They raised questions—legitimate ones, this time—about her approach to dealing with African strongmen. That was also the first time many lawmakers showed any interest at all in the troubled continent of Africa, but it was another element to tarnish Rice.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Middle East.]

So Rice has now withdrawn her name from hypothetical consideration, and GOP lawmakers may believe they have won this round. But Obama's second term agenda was never going to hinge on having Rice at State (and Sen. John Kerry, the presumed front-runner for the job, would not only be easily confirmed but would bring a wealth of skills and knowledge to the job). There's no policy the Republicans will stop by stymying Rice—it's not like refusing to confirm the head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which held up the implementation of the healthcare law. It was just a way of saying, we have control over you because we can hold up your nominations to the cabinet. From a practical level, there's no other effect.

Fighting about non-nominations is a distraction, a way of avoiding the real and very pressing issues Congress and the White House absolutely must do. The GOP is not winning the public relations war over how to deal with the looming fiscal cliff; polls show Americans indeed would like to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans. Slamming Obama for thinking about nominating Rice was a way to divert attention from that very real issue. And now that the Rice controversy is dead, Republicans (and Democrats) will have to deal with the budget and the deficit. They may believe they have won a power struggle with the White House. But all they've really done is given up one of their weapons.

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