WASHINGTON — As President Barack Obama’s presumed nomination of Susan Rice for secretary of state continues to face controversy over the administration’s handling of the consulate attack in Benghazi, there is growing concern among top Democrats that Obama may turn to Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) as his fallback choice.
The concerns have nothing to do with Kerry’s ability to handle the Foggy Bottom post. Nearly everyone agrees that he has the intellectual acumen and experience for the job.
Instead, Democrats said they worry that Republicans may be using the secretary of state fight as a roundabout way to regain a Senate seat the GOP lost this fall, when Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) was defeated by Elizabeth Warren. The anti-Rice gambit, some Democrats said, has the feel of a Republican long con.
“I don’t doubt that at all in terms of their motives,” said Tad Devine, a longtime Democratic strategist who served as a senior adviser to Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign. “I think they are trying to come down from 55 [Democrats] to get to 50 as fast as they can in the Senate.”
In back channels, these concerns are making their way to the top levels of the administration. Top Senate Democrats have expressed concerns to the White House about a possible special election for a Senate seat in Massachusetts, a Democratic source close to conversation told The Huffington Post. Another Democratic source — who, like the first, would only discuss sensitive conversations on condition of anonymity — confirmed that concerns were expressed. A third source added that leaders in the Senate also said they would be comfortable with a prospective Kerry nomination if it is clear that the White House is invested in a subsequent special election.
Kerry’s office declined to comment.
Speculation over who the president will tap to replace retiring Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is rampant inside the Beltway. The likelihood, according to seasoned foreign policy observers, is that Obama will end up choosing Rice. Not only do the two share a general philosophy on international affairs, but some operatives said they believe that the personal attacks on the U.N. ambassador have only encouraged Obama to nominate her.
Still, Kerry is hardly a long shot. On Tuesday, the National Journal reported that Obama was “genuinely conflicted” over the choice between Kerry and Rice. The growing number of voices expressing concern about that prospect suggests that the Kerry option remains viable.
Last weekend, liberal columnist Bob Kuttner penned an op-ed in Kerry’s home state Boston Globe titled “Why John Kerry Shouldn’t Be Nominated.”
“There are lots of moving parts here,” Kuttner told The Huffington Post. “One is the fact that there are nine Democratic seats that are up in 2014 and many vulnerable members, and if Kerry steps down this would make a 10th seat.”
Jonathan Prince, a longtime Democratic operative who oversaw communications strategy at NATO during the war in Kosovo, said he bought into Kuttner’s logic.
“The Senate seat is a legitimate concern,” Prince told The Huffington Post. “I don’t think it should be dispositive, but I don’t think it’s an unimportant consideration. Now, fortunately, [Democrats] picked up seats in 2012, so there is wiggle room. But of course you don’t want to lose a Senate seat. It is 100-percent legit to worry about.”
But Prince, like Devine, was quick to add that the president should ultimately pick the person he wants for the job. He added that Kerry would be a “strong asset” in the Obama cabinet in addition to his belief that the “campaign against Susan Rice is reprehensible.” Others have noted how unfortunate it would be if Republican gamesmanship (not the president’s preference for Rice) ultimately tripped Kerry up.
Kerry, after all, granted Obama, as an obscure state senator, a prime time speaking slot at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. He endorsed then-Sen. Obama early in the 2008 primary, played the role of Obama surrogate during that election and served as Obama’s debate sparring partner four years later.
And therein lies the inherent awkwardness of the situation for the president. Though he has famously cut the cord with mentors and allies in the past (see: Daschle, Tom), the main knock against Kerry isn’t personal. It’s the political scheming that surrounds him.
That said, not everyone is convinced that Kerry’s departure from the Senate would necessarily mean giving up the Massachusetts Senate seat. Under state law, a special election is held no fewer than 145 days or more than 160 days after the vacancy occurred. Gov. Deval Patrick (D) could appoint a replacement for Kerry in the interim, and that person would have the benefit of being the serving senator at the time of a special election.
Moreover, Democrats nationally and in the state are convinced that Scott Brown did serious damage to his brand during his 2012 campaign against Elizabeth Warren. His special election victory in 2010 came at a unique moment of high anger at Washington, and amid a surge of Tea Party activism, which propelled his campaign.
“Even if he tried to run for the seat, it’s not a slam-dunk for him,” said Jim Spencer, a Boston-based Democratic political consultant who worked on Kerry’s 2004 presidential run. “And he may not decide to run for the seat. Brown is someone with a future in Republican politics in Massachusetts, but if he ran for that Senate seat and lost again, he’s probably done.”
Instead, Spencer suggested Brown might be looking ahead to the 2014 gubernatorial race, an election that has historically been more friendly to Republicans in the state.
Charles Baker, a Massachusetts Democratic consultant who also served on Kerry’s 2004 team, agreed that a special election wouldn’t obviously be Brown’s to lose in the heavily Democratic state.
“Brown’s a formidable candidate, but remember, this is a place where a bad Democrat loses by four,” Baker said. “People really aren’t thinking of this a lot yet. I think people are really fond of Senator Kerry, they like having him as a senator, but if he wants to move on people will understand. But nobody’s going to think about it before it actually happens.”