The politics of the Rice vote

Posted: Jan 28, 2005 12:00 AM

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.

     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.

     The other political calculation that Democrats have to make -- one that plagued them throughout the election campaign -- is how vigorously to oppose the Iraq War. We are at a critical point in the Iraq enterprise, the most hopeful point since the fall of Baghdad. It's not just the advent of the first free elections in Iraqi history, but the beginning of a real politics with campaigning, coalition building, debate, the construction of political platforms -- all of the rudiments of a representative political system.

     It seems particularly inopportune for Sen. Edward Kennedy, for example, to use this moment to call the Iraq policy a catastrophe and a hopeless quagmire. It is possible that history will, in time, prove him right. But how does he know?

     To assert with such certainty that the war is lost, especially at such a hopeful time, seems not only to be betting against our side. It presents the political dilemma that faces all war dissidents -- particularly those whose main argument is unwinnability: It tells the brave and committed soldiers on the front line they are fighting in vain.

     Regardless of the sincerity of Kennedy's assertion, it carries heavy political risk. Kennedy, however, is long past aspirations for higher political office. 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.