Washington, D.C., has never been a "love thy neighbor" kind of place, certainly not in the past four years when Republicans worked to stymie President Barack Obama at all costs, or the eight preceding years when Democrats had similar feelings about President George W. Bush.
So how do you explain the love affair of the past few years between Republicans and Hillary Clinton?
It's not difficult to figure out. Just as those on the left were for the longest time tossing bouquets at John McCain — when he was the media darling who took on Bush — Republicans have been saying nice things about Clinton more or less since she became secretary of state. Part of the reason is practical; her approval ratings are sky high. But the real reason is that by praising her, the Republicans are in effect contrasting her with the president they so despise. So each thrown kiss at Clinton was actually a dig at Obama.
That's exactly what former Vice President Dick Cheney was doing a few years ago when he said on Fox News Sunday that had she and not Obama been in office, she "might have been easier for some of us who are critics of the president to work with":
"I have the sense that she's one of the more competent members of the current administration, and it would be interesting to speculate about how she might perform were she to be president."
Even back in September, in the aftermath of the terrorist attack at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, Republicans went out of their way to direct their ire not at Clinton but at U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, who went on the Sunday talk shows with insufficient and incomplete talking points about the causes of the attack, which resulted in the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. One, they felt that Rice was downplaying the terrorist angle to the attack, perhaps because, in their view, the administration didn't want al-Qaida to become a sticking point in the Obama campaign message with the election just weeks away. And two, Rice seemed to be Obama's clear choice to succeed Clinton as the next secretary of state in a second term. By praising Clinton (and to a lesser degree John Kerry), Republicans not-so-subtly were attacking both Obama and Rice.
And it was not only about foreign policy. House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan, the 2012 GOP vice presidential nominee, said on NBC's Meet the Press that the nation's economic health would be much better if Clinton were president: "Look, if we had a Clinton presidency, if we had Erskine Bowles as chief of staff of the White House or president of the United States, I think we would have fixed this fiscal mess by now. ... That's not the kind of presidency we're dealing with right now." What better way to tweak Obama than by praising his 2008 rival?
But now that she is about to leave the Cabinet, with talk about 2016 swirling everywhere, the Republican view of Hillary Clinton is different ... or, more precisely, back where it was when she was first lady and at loggerheads with the "vast right-wing conspiracy." Just as McCain became less useful for the Democrats as he moved away from his maverick reputation, Clinton is no longer being praised by the right in order to disparage Obama — now that she may become their opponent in the next presidential election.
So when she finally appeared last week before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (and House Foreign Affairs Committee) to answer questions about Benghazi, they went on an all-out assault. She took complete responsibility for what happened. But when she noted that she never read requests sent by the consulate for increased security, that was too much for Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. "Inexcusable," he said. "A failure of leadership." And then he went on to say, "Had I been president at the time and I had found that you had not read the cables from Benghazi, you had not read the cables from Ambassador Stevens, I would have relieved you of your post." Not knowing of these requests for additional security, Paul said, "really, I think, cost these people their lives."
The big headline that came out of the committee hearings, however, was her response to questioning from Sen. Ron Johnson, where the Wisconsin Republican insisted on focusing on Susan Rice's statements in the wake of the attacks. These may have been GOP talking points back in the fall, but Clinton was having no part of it in 2013:
"With all due respect, the fact is we had four dead Americans. Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk one night who decided that they'd they go kill some Americans? What difference at this point does it make? It is our job to figure out what happened and do everything we can to prevent it from ever happening again, Senator."
It was a response that cheered her supporters, one that was played over and over on cable news programs. Democrats loved her "feistiness," that she "manhandled" the Republicans and stood up to their "untruths." But Republicans remained unmoved. McCain, who had nice things to say about Clinton prior to the hearings, complained on Fox that for all the theatrics, "she really didn't answer any questions":
"Her response to Senator Johnson about whether there was a spontaneous demonstration or not, saying it didn't matter — it didn't matter how these people died? That was stunning. That was really stunning. Of course it matters. It matters for a whole lot of reasons, including to the families and Americans, because the American people deserve to be told the truth, and they were not told the truth in her talking points."
Let the record show that Hillary Clinton's day of testimony came on the same day Defense Secretary Leon Panetta ended the ban on allowing women in combat.
And speaking of breakups, the love affair between Fox News and Sarah Palin has apparently come to an end. With her contract up for renewal, Fox announced that the former Alaska governor would no longer be a regular on-air commentator. While neither party explained why the relationship became kaput, there were some musings on the Web that she wasn't happy with the offer from Fox. And there is some evidence that there has been unhappiness for quite some time; for example, she publicly criticized the network on her Facebook page for canceling her appearances during the Republican National Convention. The Daily Beast's Howard Kurtz writes that Fox offered only a fraction of the million-dollar salary she had been getting the past four years, forcing Palin to turn it down:
"What happened, quite simply, is that Palin's star had faded. She was no longer the rock star of 2008, her future presidential ambitions the subject of constant speculation. The political climate shifted as well, with Republicans, having been shellacked in their second straight presidential election, debating a future involving Rubio and Christie and Ryan but not Palin.
"And the atmosphere at Fox shifted as well. It was no longer a network in the throes of a Tea Party revolt and providing a platform for Glenn Beck. Fox edged a bit closer to the center, and Palin began to seem more the Julianne Moore of Game Change than a political force.
"Palin retains a passionate following among some conservatives who view her as a female trailblazer. But she will now have to build her brand without the Fox platform."
And the National Journal's Jill Lawrence writes that Palin leaving Fox "puts an exclamation point on the end of an era, or at least a chapter, in U.S. political history":
"Once the face of an energetic and politically potent Tea Party movement, Palin is leaving Fox at a time when polls show the Tea Party at an all-time low in both membership and favorability. Her departure also coincides with calls by some leading Republicans for their party to stop saying things that erode the GOP brand and turn off voters in droves."
Far more negative was this review by Jason Easley at PoliticusUSA:
"This isn't the first time that her ego and greed have cost her a job. There was no second season of her reality show, Sarah Palin's Alaska, because Palin wanted to be paid millions of dollars per episode to continue the series.
"While the Republican Party has moved on to dreaming about Paul Ryan, Chris Christie and Marco Rubio, Sarah Palin is still stuck in 2008. She still thinks that she is a superstar worthy of top dollar. Fox News execs realized that they had made a bad investment with Palin, and knew that the one sure way to get rid of her was to slash her salary. ...
"Sarah Palin left the national stage in the same arrogant, deluded and greedy way that she came in. Palin knows that her departure from Fox News was a stealth firing. That's why she tried to get out ahead of the story. It will be easier to con her few remaining fans into giving her money if they believe that she left the cable news ratings leader because she has bigger fish to fry."
But Palin herself, in an interview with the Breitbart News Web site, appeared much more upbeat about her future:
"As far as long-term plans, the door is wide open. I know the country needs more truth-telling in the media, and I'm willing to do that. So, we shall see. And always in the center of it all I have an awesome, full, exciting and large family living in a very unique part of America that keeps me hopping! I love it!"
It just won't be very unique on Fox News.
Senate openings. Two senators announced their retirements last week:
Georgia — Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R) said Friday he will not seek a third term next year. A conservative by nearly every stretch of the imagination — he's received 100 percent ratings from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Conservative Union over the years — he's been at the forefront of the bipartisan effort to deal with the federal deficit. He's also been the subject of right-wing displeasure with his willingness to work with Democrats on budget issues and after he broke with Grover Norquist over the no-tax pledge. There had been rumors that several Republicans were mulling a primary challenge to him, notably Reps. Paul Broun and Tom Price, as well as former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel, who sought the governorship in the 2010 GOP primary.
But Chambliss' decision to leave appears to be less about election worries and more about unhappiness about the way things work (or don't work) in Washington. "This is about frustration," he said, "both at a lack of leadership from the White House and at the dearth of meaningful action from Congress." The debt ceiling and fiscal cliff battles, he added, "showed Congress at its worst and, sadly, I don't see the legislative gridlock and partisan posturing improving anytime soon."
The three aforementioned Republicans are now thought likely to run, and more may soon be added to the list; Jim Galloway of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution mentions Reps. Phil Gingrey and Tom Graves and state Sen. Ross Tolleson as other potential candidates. Two widely known GOPers, former presidential hopeful Herman Cain and ex-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, said they won't run. On the Democratic side, attention immediately turned to Blue Dog Rep. John Barrow. Barrow is one of those nearly extinct creatures — a white congressional Democrat in the Deep South — who often has to work his tail off to get re-elected. He had said he won't run, but that was when Chambliss was still in the race, so that may not be the final word. Another potential candidate is Kasim Reed, the mayor of Atlanta.
Iowa — The day after Chambliss' announcement came a similar one from five-term Democrat Tom Harkin that he too won't seek re-election next year. At 73, he will have been in Congress for the past 40 years (House 1975-84, Senate since 1985), and he said that "it's somebody else's turn." Harkin's problems have never been in the primary — he always finds himself on the GOP hit list — but he always managed to survive, many times impressively. An old-school liberal and a strong populist, he played a huge role in the Affordable Care Act as well as the Americans with Disabilities Act. But his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1992 went nowhere, aside from the basically uncontested Iowa caucuses, which he handily won. He is the longest-serving Democratic senator in Iowa history.
Democrats are likely to rally around Rep. Bruce Braley, who just won his fourth term in the House. Braley was considering a gubernatorial run until Harkin made his announcement. Less clear is what will happen on the Republican side. Many in the GOP feel Rep. Tom Latham would be their party's strongest candidate, but he may not have the nomination to himself; Rep. Steve King, a strong conservative and Tea Party favorite very vocal on anti-illegal immigration issues, may also run, and a divisive primary could help the Democrats hold onto the seat.
And then there's New Jersey. No announcement yet from Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D) on his plans, but whether or not the 89-year-old Democrat runs again, he's still been making headlines back home. Newark Mayor Cory Booker (D) has made it clear he is looking at the Senate seat, regardless of whether Lautenberg runs, and that hasn't gone down too well with the Democratic incumbent. Lautenberg, who has yet to speak to Booker about next year's primary, has made clear his displeasure with the potential challenge. Last week he told the Philadelphia Inquirer that Booker deserved a "spanking": "I have four children, I love each one of them. I can't tell [you] that one of them wasn't occasionally disrespectful, so I gave them a spanking and everything was OK." A few days later, Lautenberg went on to describe Newark as a "city in desperate need of attention" and implied Booker wasn't quite doing his job.
Meanwhile, a new Quinnipiac University poll shows Booker leading Lautenberg 51 percent to 30 percent in a hypothetical primary matchup. And a whopping 71 percent said the senator's age makes it difficult for him to do the job.
Another Democrat thought to have Senate hopes in his future is Rep. Frank Pallone. But he made it clear that he would run only if Lautenberg retired.
No Republican has won a Senate race in New Jersey since 1972.
Political Updates. I post periodic political updates during the week — some serious, some not — on Twitter. You can follow me at @kenrudin.
Two senators for governor. Last week's column had a question about next year's gubernatorial race in Minnesota. Former Sen. Norm Coleman (R) is talking about challenging current Gov. (and former senator) Mark Dayton (D). The writer wanted to know if two former senators had ever opposed each other in a race for governor. I don't think so, but Tom Phillips of Austin, Texas, came up with an example that's probably as close as we'll get. He said the closest instance was in Texas in 1956, "when current Senator Price Daniel beat former senator W. Lee O'Daniel and future senator Ralph Yarborough for the Democratic nomination for governor."
Department of Corrections: The Jan. 7 Political Junkie column listed all the new members of the 113th Congress. Regarding Kerry Bentivolio (R-Mich. 11), I wrote that he succeeded Thad McCotter (R), who resigned. Well, not exactly. As Joshua Holman of Havelock, N.C., writes:
"Actually, Bentivolio succeeds Democrat David Curson. Curson was elected last November in the old MI-11 to fill the rest of McCotter's term [McCotter resigned July 6] in the 112th Congress. Bentivolio was elected to the new MI-11 for the full term that started this month."
Political Junkie segment on Talk of the Nation. Each Wednesday at 2 p.m. ET, the Political Junkie segment appears on Talk of the Nation (NPR's call-in program), hosted by Neal Conan with me adding color commentary, where you can, sometimes, hear interesting conversation, useless trivia questions and sparkling jokes. Last week's show focused on what strategy the Republicans need to implement for the second Obama term with guest Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont-McKenna College. You can listen to the segment here:
Last week's trivia question: Only two votes were cast against Hillary Clinton's nomination for secretary of state four years ago. John Kerry may get a similarly strong approval from the Senate this year. Since World War II, which secretary of state received the most negative votes during Senate confirmation? (answer below)
Podcast. There's also a new episode of our weekly podcast, "It's All Politics," up every Thursday. It's hosted by my partner in crime, Ron Elving, and me.
And Don't Forget ScuttleButton. ScuttleButton, America's favorite waste-of-time button puzzle, can usually be found in this spot every Monday or Tuesday. A randomly selected winner will be announced every Wednesday during the Political Junkie segment on NPR's Talk of the Nation. You still have time to submit your answer to last week's contest, which you can see here. Sure, there's incredible joy in deciphering the answer, but the winner gets not only a Political Junkie T-shirt but also a 3-1/2-inch Official No-Prize Button! Is this a great country or what??
ON THE CALENDAR:
Jan. 31 — Confirmation hearings scheduled in the Senate Armed Services Committee for Chuck Hagel, President Obama's choice for secretary of defense.
Feb. 26 — Special primary in Illinois' 2nd CD to replace Jesse Jackson Jr. (D), who resigned. (General election: April 9)
March 19 — Special primary in South Carolina's 1st Congressional District to replace Tim Scott (R), who was appointed to the Senate.
April 2 — Runoff in S.C. 01. (General election: May 7.)
April 30 — Special Massachusetts Senate primary.
June 4 — Special election in Missouri's 8th CD to replace Jo Ann Emerson (R), who resigned.
June 25 — Special Senate election in Massachusetts to replace John Kerry, President Obama's choice to become secretary of state.
Mailing list. To receive a weekly email alert about the new column and ScuttleButton puzzle, contact me at email@example.com.
******* Don't Forget: If you are sending in a question to be used in this column, please include your city and state. *********
Trivia answer: Condoleezza Rice got the most "no" votes for secretary of state; the Senate vote was 85-13. (Actually, it was the most number of "no" votes for a secretary of state since 1825.)
This day in political history: Last year, his State of the Union message came in the wake of the Persian Gulf War, and his message was widely heralded by an overwhelming majority of Americans. Today, with approval ratings at the lowest point of his presidency, President George H.W. Bush's SOTU mostly fell on deaf ears, especially with Democrats, who blame the recession on Bush's economic policies. In his address, Bush called for a substantial cut in the capital gains tax and reducing the size of the military by $50 billion over five years. But he dismissed Democratic suggestions of a national health-care plan (Jan. 28, 1992). This will be Bush's final State of the Union address; he will be defeated for a second term in November by Bill Clinton.
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