The Rice Vote and Democratic Politics

Charles Krauthammer (WaPo, TownHall) asks a question that we’ve been kicking around OTB for a week: How smart was Democratic opposition to the Condi Rice nomination for Secretary of State?

In parliamentary systems it is not uncommon to turn a political nomination — or even a relatively insignificant bill — as a way of expressing a lack of confidence in the government or in a major policy. In the United States that is far less common, but 12 Senate Democrats (plus the independent Jim Jeffords) have done precisely that over the Condoleezza Rice nomination for secretary of state. They have used it as a vehicle to stake out their opposition to the Iraq War. They are likely to pay a heavy political price. In this country, it is customary to allow the president to choose his own Cabinet, so long as the nominee is minimally qualified. Rice is superbly qualified and everyone concedes that. So it is mildly shocking that the Democrats mustered more votes against this nomination for secretary of state than for any since 1825. Indeed, secretaries of state are generally approved unanimously. This is the first nomination in a quarter-century to have earned even a single dissenting vote. It is certainly legitimate for senators to use whatever instrument they wish to make a political point. But it is not very smart.

Because of her race, her symbolism and her personal story, Rice is not a run-of-the-mill appointment but a historic one. Which makes some of the more vitriolic charges against the first African-American woman ever chosen for the office once held by Thomas Jefferson particularly wounding and politically risky.

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. . . You don’t expect to see an iconic civil rights leader like Andrew Young indignantly defending a Bush administration appointment. It took the Senate Democrats’ attack on Rice to produce that unlikely scene. Will it matter politically in the end? Can Democrats take the African-American vote for granted? Perhaps, but it will be interesting to see whether Democrats will be willing to repeat this exercise if Bush were to nominate Clarence Thomas to succeed William Rehnquist and become the country’s first black chief justice. The Democrats’ performance on the Rice nomination has opened precisely that possibility for the president.

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The list of 13 Senators who opposed Rice includes some thinking seriously of running for the presidency in 2008. Most prominent of these are Evan Bayh and John Kerry. And Barbara Boxer has clearly used the Rice hearings to raise her national political profile. By using Rice to vigorously oppose the war, they all vie for the 2008 Howard Dean role — albeit played calm and composed — of unequivocal antiwar candidate and favorite of the party’s activist left.

There is at least one even more prominent Democrat who clearly considers that calculation wrong. Among the list of Democrats who did vote for Rice is Hillary Clinton, steadily moving to the center with her relatively hawkish work on the Armed Services Committee, her recent conciliatory speech on abortion, and now her unwillingness to go over the cliff in opposing the Rice nomination.

Who has the politics of this right? My guess is: Hillary, as usual.

That’s certainly the safe bet. The fact that most Democratic senators followed her lead would seem to indicate they think she’s on the right track.

Whatever one might think of her, she’s an incredibly shrewd politician. While she lacks some of the gifts of her husband, she largely makes up for it with better self-discipline. She’s played it very smart on the war and appears to be staking out a position well to the right of her party on abortion and immigration. My guess she’s right on those issues, too.

FILED UNDER: Congress, Race and Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. ken says:

    I don’t know James, it seems to me that opposing someone who just plain lied to all of us about an issue that led to an illegal war is pretty good politics. Condi’s color is not a problem, her lack of integrity is.

  2. McGehee says:

    Ken, the question is whether those voting against Dr. Rice are to be taken seriously by mainstream opinion. The question of what you think, is another thing entirely.

  3. Jim Henley says:

    I suspect Krauthammer is letting his hopes stand in for his thoughts as far as the racial politics go. But if the BLACK press, not some white Republican columnist, starts writing as if the Rice vote is an insult to African-American honor, I’ll certainly change my tune.

  4. Marc says:

    Ken: “someone who just plain lied to all of us about an issue that led to an illegal war is pretty good politics.”

    And what lies were those? Keeping in mind of course a lie is a false statement deliberately presented as being true. Can you name them, with supporting documents?

    Doesn’t enforcing an internationaly recognized ceasefire, one repeatedly violated by Saddam, fall under the category of legal.

    Obviously not in your case, but that’s the way it is with the anti-Bush/war faction. You can hear and read a million “illegal war” screeds but none include the words ceasefire.

    Wonder why that is?

  5. praktike says:

    Right. Charles Krauthammer, the man who speaks for black aspirations everywhere … give me a break. This conservo-race card thing is so dumb, it’s pathetic. Nothing in the Senators’ votes against Rice had anything to do with her race whatsoever. Krauthammer is the only one bringing this up, and frankly, it’s embarrassing. Moreover, it’s pretty clear that she did, in fact, mislead about the extent of U.S. knowledge about Iraq’s nuclear weapons program by cherrypicking the one guy who said the aluminum tubes were for a nuclear program and failing to inform the public that everyone else–and most importantly those with the necessary knowledge–thought otherwise.

  6. paladin says:

    I am so bored by those who claim that GWB just made up the claim of WMD over the last several years. Those of us with an attention span of more than five minutes will remember that Bill Clinton, John Kerry, Ted Kennedy, Nancy Pelosi, Carl Levin, Robert Byrd, Henry Waxman, Al Gore, Tom Daschle, Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright, Wm. Cohen, etc. all said Saddam had WMD and must be stopped. Now these same people are saying the Bush lied. Give me a freakin’ break! Monday Morning Quarterbacking Gone Wild!

  7. Avedon says:

    Those of us with an attention span of more than five minutes remember that it had been a few years since people had said there were WMD in Iraq, and that we had bombed their suspected caches since then, and that bio & chemical weapons have a short shelf-life that had already been exceeded.

    We also remember that weapons inspectors were in Iraq looking in the very places that the US gov. was claiming the weapons were, and they weren’t finding them.

    We also remember that the point of the entire exercise was to get weapons inspectors in there. And the weapons inspectors were there. And there was no reason to invade.

    Of course, if Rice was not lying – if she actually believed the things she was saying, then perhaps she is not a liar but she certainly isn’t competent so it hardly matters. One way or another her judgment led to bad decisions.

    But then, if her own attention span was good for more than five minutes, we must assume she did indeed lie when she changed her story back and forth. And if it’s not good for more than five minutes, let’s get someone in there whose memory is a bit more efficient.

  8. paladin says:

    On January 23, 2003, John Kerry said: “Without question, we need to disarm Saddam Hussein. He is a brutal, murderous dictator…He presents a particularly grievous threat….So the threat of Saddam Hussein with weapons of mass destruction is real.” Hey, if you can’t believe John Kerry, who can you believe?

  9. paladin says:

    On January 23, 2003, John Kerry said: “Without question, we need to disarm Saddam Hussein. He is a brutal, murderous dictator…He presents a particularly grievous threat….So the threat of Saddam Hussein with weapons of mass destruction is real.” Hey, if you can’t believe John Kerry, who can you believe?

  10. Attila Girl says:

    The legality of the war rested on the fact that Saddam was violating international law, by 1) flouting the terms of the cease-fire (shooting at our planes), and 2) not showing us how he had disposed of the WMDs. People always forget this: he was not simply required to get rid of them. He was required to document when and how he did it.

    South Africa did this correctly, and wasn’t invaded. But Saddam did everything in his power to coyly hint that he still had the weapons in question, and he did not cooperate with the inspectors.

    His actions were tantamount to manufacturing evidence against oneself in a murder trial. So he was “convicted,” in a sense. And it was his own fault.