WASHINGTON -- 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.
Mark Dayton of Minnesota accused her of lying in order to deceive the American people into going to war -- a charge that is not just false, but suffers additionally from not being believed by most Americans. Rice was not a generator of intelligence. She was a consumer -- of a highly defective product.
Nor was she the principal architect of the Iraq War. That distinction lies with the president and vice president. To pin so much of the war on Rice, as her Senate opponents needed to do in order to try to sink her nomination, seems unfair and disproportionate.
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.
Charles Krauthammer is a 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner, 1984 National Magazine Award winner, and a columnist for The Washington Post since 1985.
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