Sunday, March 16, 2008

McCain-Rice in 2008: Because Eight Years is Not Enough

One of things I've learned from blogging over the past four months is that it is often difficult to come up with topics to write about on a regular basis. The world occasionally changes quickly, but mostly it just chugs along at a fairly glacial pace. Today's stories are small variations on yesterday's. Those who write commentary for a living must sometimes feel as though they are forever in rewrite, trying to give old news a fresh angle.

Only this could explain Hendrik Hertzberg's current column in The New Yorker, in which he raises the intriguing--to him--notion that John McCain might be well served by handing the vice presidential nomination to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Reassuringly, Hertzberg suggests that this choice "would not be an entirely cynical one." It remains unclear why that would be the case, since the main justification presented by the writer involves Rice's race and gender, and the fact that her presence on the ticket would free the GOP to attack either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama without mercy. Nope, nothing cynical about that.

OK, so other than a little political insulation and an appealing backstory--she grew up in civil rights-era Birmingham--exactly what does Dr. Rice bring to the table? (And enough of the "Dr." stuff already; she merely has a Ph.D., a degree held by half the people I know, few of whom are prepared to lead the Free World.) Perhaps her stellar performance in the Bush administration? Here's Hertzberg: "It’s true that her record in office has been one of failure, from downgrading terrorism as a priority before 9/11 to ignoring the Israel-Palestine problem until (almost certainly) too late." Well, there's a promising foundation for a candidacy.

But, the author quickly reminds us, Rice remains personally popular despite her rather comprehensive incompetence as a foreign policy guru. And indeed she does, though in large part because her own lack of success pales in comparison to the more spectacular miscues of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld. Rice has clearly benefited from seeming less nutty than the people who emply her. That protection, however, would quickly dissipate once she moved from understudy to lead actress.

Exactly how would it help John McCain to spend the week of the Republican national convention re-living this little nugget from the televised 9/11 commission hearings:

"RICE: I remember very well that the president was aware that there were issues inside the United States. He talked to people about this. But I don't remember the al Qaeda cells as being something that we were told we needed to do something about.

[Commission member Richard] BEN-VENISTE: Isn't it a fact, Dr. Rice, that the August 6 PDB warned against possible attacks in this country? And I ask you whether you recall the title of that PDB?

RICE: I believe the title was, "Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States.".

Maybe Hertzberg's memory is short (or his cynicism is deep), but that snippet of testimony remains one of the most staggering confessions of neglect of duty ever committed to video tape. John McCain's one and only claim on the presidency is his experience and judgment in the realm of foreign policy. His experience, consisting mostly of traveling abroad and serving on Senate committees, is sure to be challenged by the Democratic nominee this fall. Should he propose Secretary Rice as his designated successor--that man is 72, after all--his judgment on this issue could simply no longer be taken seriously.

Ask anyone who doesn't write for The New Yorker what John McCain needs to do between now and November, and you will get two main answers. He needs to distinguish himself from the dismally unpopular Bush administration and he has to find a way to establish his bona fides in the area of domestic affairs. If there's a way that he can accomplish this by selecting Bush's foreign secretary as his running mate, it surely escapes me.

I mean, if McCain simply needs a woman or minority group member to help him take on either Obama or Clinton, he can undoubtedly find one with at least a little credibility on the big issues here at home. Heck, Harriet Miers and Alberto Gonzales are just a phone call away. What do you say, Hendrik?

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