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Susan Rice: Have the Democrats Found Their 'Condi'?

11/23/2012 03:48 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2013

They're namesakes, it's true. Condoleezza Rice was a Stanford academic and Russia specialist with strong ties to two warring national security giants -- George Schultz and Brent Scowcroft -- and eventually parlayed those ties into top positions in the administration of George W. Bush.

Susan Rice, also an academic, but an Africa specialist, served on the National Security Council and eventually headed up the State department's Africa bureau during the Clinton administration before becoming a top foreign policy adviser to John Kerry in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2008.

Now as Obama's high-flying but embattled UN ambassador, she's reportedly in line to assume Condi's old post: U.S. Secretary of State.

But not, of course, if Republicans, still bitter over their defeat in the presidential election two weeks ago, have their way. Ninety-seven GOP House members just sent a letter to Obama asking him to withdraw Rice from consideration, citing her alleged "inexperience" as well as her "lack of truthfulness." Her crime? She dutifully appeared on all five Sunday talk show programs last September to peddle the now-discredited theory that an anti-Muslim video was responsible for the Benghazi attack.

Typically, successful presidents get wide leeway to nominate candidates for top posts. As long as the nominees are deemed broadly qualified, the U.S. Senate, which must approve them by a majority vote, is hard-pressed to block them from serving, simply to score partisan points.

Of course, scrutiny is especially tough for the U.S. Supreme Court because the nominees are prospective lifetime appointments. Bush's nomination of Harriet Miers for the US Supreme Court was so laughable that he was forced to withdraw it. Bill Clinton withdrew two different women from consideration for U.S. Attorney General after it was revealed that each had hired illegal immigrants as nannies and maids.

There's also the legendary case of Clarence Thomas, which, like the prospective Rice nomination, raised the issue of race. At least Thomas thought so. Under siege for allegedly harassing Anita Hill and other former associates with sexual pressure and innuendo, he accused the Senate of engaging in a "high-tech lynching of an uppity Negro" and opposition to his appointment quickly melted.

But Secretaries of State are usually a different kettle of fish. Many Democrats didn't think Condi Rice was especially well qualified, but she had high-level backing, and as the first Black woman ever considered for the job, and with the Thomas experience still s fresh, perhaps, she sailed through her confirmation hearing. The Senate voted to confirm her, 85-13. (In fact, that was the stiffest opposition a nominee for Secretary of State had faced in 180 years).

House Democrats, sensing a gathering GOP storm around their own Condi, are beginning to play the race card to protect her. South Carolina Democrat James Clyburn, who is African-American, and in line to take over from Nancy Pelosi as party leader, recently charged that descriptions of Rice as "inexperienced" or "lazy" -- charges also previously leveled at Obama -- have "racial overtones." In fact, the House has no role to play in confirming or shooting down Rice, should she be nominated, but it's a shot across the bow of the GOP's verbal battleship, warning of greater pyrotechnics to come.

Undoubtedly, Republicans are overstating Rice's role in a Libya "cover-up," if such a cover-up indeed even occurred. She's not the first UN Ambassador -- or Secretary of State, actually -- to be trotted out to issue a fairly untenable policy defense. Remember Colin Powell's unseemly but dutiful defense of the Bush lie that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction? Powell's sterling bipartisan reputation took a huge hit, but no one on either side of the aisle ever claimed that he was less qualified for his job because of it.

Even some Republicans think the GOP is probably underestimating the breadth and depth of support that Rice can call upon if necessary. "She comes from generations of elite Black influence," including a father who is a former federal Reserve governor, says Warren Moore, a long-time African-American Republican and Rice watcher. In fact, even if Obama wanted to withdraw her name, it might not be so easy. Obama might not have won re-election, at least not so decisively, had it not been for the personal intervention of Bill Clinton, and Obama's political debt to the former president and members of his administration like Rice appears to have grown immeasurably.

But in the end, there's an inexorable pattern here that transcends the machination of the two parties. Susan Rice's rise, like Condi's before her, reflects the changing demographics of American politics and the continuing need for both parties to legitimize themselves not only to minority voters, but also to women, and perhaps, increasingly, to Black women, who vote at higher rates than any other constituency, and who are the real fulcrum behind the Democrats' persistent advantage with women.

Condi Rice stood out dramatically in a sea of White faces in the GOP, but she also gave flesh to Bush's "compassionate" conservatism and his successful drive to woo more minority voters (Bush's 16 percent of the Black vote helped him win Ohio in 2004). Obama, meanwhile, is anxious to find new ways to legitimize himself to African Americans who wonder whether their steadfast support in 2008 and again in 2012 will be reciprocated with something more than lip service.

Of course, Susan Rice's appointment won't convince the Cornel Wests of the world that Obama is little more than a "Republican in Black face." But for many others, the sight of not one but two persons of African-American ancestry occupying the highest positions of power and influence in the U.S. government will send a powerful signal that America, despite its persistent economic and political challenges, is still holding true to its promise of greater inclusion and diversity.

For all of these reasons, don't be surprised if Obama digs in his heels and decides to nominate Rice, even in the face of stiff GOP opposition, daring Republicans to go on record against a woman of color at a time when their reputation for antipathy to minorities is at an all-time low.

In fact, Obama could even choose to up the ante: If the GOP manages to block her confirmation, or threatens to, he could avoid a messy floor fight by naming her Secretary of State through a recess appointment. It wouldn't be pretty, but it's happened before, and at this point, few expect Obama's honeymoon with Congress to last that long anyway.