INDIANAPOLIS — When Susan Rice came to Indiana a few years ago, she had not yet become the club that Republicans in the U.S. Senate now use to beat President Barack Obama with about perceived foreign policy failings.
She wasn’t in the running then to be the next U.S. secretary of state.
She wasn’t even ambassador to the United Nations.
No, in the fall of 2008, she and former U.S. Rep. Tim Roemer, D-Ind., did some circuit-riding around the Hoosier state searching for votes for Obama. That year, Indiana was a battleground state, which meant Hoosiers got bombarded with campaign ads and visits from high-powered surrogates for Obama.
One of the stops on the Rice-Roemer tour was at Franklin College, where I teach. I met her then and talked with her for a bit.
A small, intense woman with a clipped way of speaking, Rice didn’t waste much time on small talk. She gave me a condensed preview of what she would give the crowd a little later, a brutal dissection of what she perceived to be the failures of President George W. Bush in Iraq, Afghanistan and other parts of the word. She said, in essence, that the GOP’s handling of the terrorist threat had managed to create more enemies for America than it eliminated.
She extended those failures to the Republicans’ 2008 presidential candidate — Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. — even though McCain often had clashed with the Bush White House about foreign policy questions.
Linking a current opponent to an unpopular president is standard operating procedure in politics. Until George W. Bush came along, Democrats spent nearly 80 years trying to run against Herbert Hoover. And Republicans now are in their fourth decade of running against Jimmy Carter.
What wasn’t typical, though, was Rice’s tone, which was laced with contempt for McCain and other Republicans. Speaking to me and to the crowd, her whole demeanor when she spoke about the GOP’s foreign policy seemed to suggest that she couldn’t believe anyone could be that stupid or dishonest.
Flash forward four years.
McCain now leads a charge in the U.S. Senate to block Rice’s appointment as the next secretary of state. He says he wants answers regarding what Rice knew about the events surrounding an attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi, Libya — an attack that left four U.S. citizens, including the ambassador, dead.
McCain and other Republican senators say they are disturbed that Rice went on the Sunday morning political talk shows to defend the Obama administration’s actions in Benghazi. They say that a potential secretary of state shouldn’t have inserted herself into the political process.
It’s an odd argument. Hillary Clinton, the current secretary of state, after all, is a former presidential candidate and U.S. senator. The previous secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice (no relation), was one of the headliners at the Republican convention.
And when it turned out that the winner of the 2000 presidential election would be determined by the equivalent of a street fight, Republicans sent James Baker and Democrats dispatched Warren Christopher to manage their respective sides of the political brawl. Both Baker and Christopher had been secretaries of state.
The implausibility of the argument has led some observers to question if Republicans don’t have a political motive — a plan to eliminate Susan Rice from consideration so that Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., becomes the obvious alternative. That would free up a Senate seat for which Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., could run. Brown just lost his current seat to Elizabeth Warren, and Republicans would love to pick up a spot.
But it’s also possible that there are more basic, human motivations at work. Very few people like to be considered idiots.
Four years after Susan Rice visited my campus, I don’t remember much of the substance of what she said.
But I remember the tone. She came into a state that had voted Republican in every presidential election for the past 40 years, and her demeanor in effect said that anyone who supported the GOP was either a moron or a liar.
It’s possible there is some grand Machiavellian strategy behind the GOP’s opposition to Susan Rice.
But it’s also possible that McCain and other Republicans sensed that Rice viewed them with contempt.
Now they have a chance to return the favor.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 FM Indianapolis and executive editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.