WASHINGTON, D.C. — Sen. John Kerry is angling to be the nation’s top diplomat by being, well, diplomatic.
The longtime Democratic lawmaker from Massachusetts has largely stayed quiet while President Barack Obama considers him for the next secretary of state. Kerry has asked his supporters to avoid overt lobbying of the White House on his behalf. And he’s defended his chief rival for the post, Susan Rice, amid Republican criticism of her initial explanation of the attack on Americans in Benghazi, Libya.
Kerry’s strategy reflects what people close to the senator say is his disdain for some aspects of Washington’s personnel politics. But it also underscores his awkward role in the process. If Obama taps Rice for the job Kerry covets, the senator would have to shepherd her difficult nomination through the foreign relations committee he chairs.
White House officials say Obama is still mulling over his pick to replace outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, though a decision is expected soon. Rice, who has a close relationship with the president, is widely viewed as the favorite. But Kerry’s stock may be rising as GOP lawmakers threaten to hold up Rice’s confirmation until they’re satisfied with her answers about the early public statements about the Benghazi attack.
But don’t expect Kerry or his allies to make his case to Obama as the president nears a decision, as is standard practice for people who are on a short list for a new job. People close to the senator say he finds backroom lobbying for top jobs irritating and counterproductive. That view, they say, is shaped from his experience on both sides of the process: as a contender for previous high-level jobs and as the one making the decision in 2004, when he tapped John Edwards as his running mate during his presidential bid.
“John Kerry is very seasoned at how personnel decisions get made by chief executives,” said Michael Meehan, a former Kerry aide. “He wouldn’t be out there advising anybody on how to make this decision.”
While Rice has several high-level advocates in the White House, particularly among advisers who have been with Obama since his 2008 campaign, Kerry has his fans within the administration as well. He backed Obama early in his 2008 presidential run and was under consideration to be his first secretary of state. More recently, Kerry spent months helping Obama with his campaign debate preparations, playing the role of Republican nominee Mitt Romney in practice sessions.
White House aides say Obama sees Kerry as a team player, a quality the president values in making personnel decisions. If Obama passes over Kerry for the State Department post, there has been speculation the president could try to find another role for him in the administration, possibly as defense secretary, though Kerry aides say he’s not interested.
Perhaps Kerry’s greatest advantage for the job is the likelihood that he would be easily confirmed by his Senate colleagues.
“John Kerry came within a whisker of being president of the United States; I think that works in his favor,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Tuesday on Fox News. “But I’d love to hear him make his case. I don’t have anything in his background like this tragedy in Benghazi that would make me really want to carefully examine the whole situation.”
Sen. Susan Collins, a moderate Republican from Maine, echoed McCain’s comments Wednesday after meeting privately with Rice, the current U.N. ambassador.
Rice has been making the rounds on Capitol Hill trying to address criticism from Republicans who say she misled the public for political reasons about what sparked the September attacks that killed the U.S. ambassador, Chris Stevens, and three other Americans. Rice, relying on talking points written by intelligence officials, said on Sunday talk shows days after the attacks that they appeared to be inspired by protests elsewhere in the Middle East over an anti-Muslim video.
At that point, the administration had known for days that it was a distinct militant attack.
Kerry has defended Rice, saying in September that she was “a remarkable public servant” and “an enormously capable person who has represented us at the United Nations with strength and character.”
Kerry would likely have to make that same case to his Senate counterparts if Rice is nominated. As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, it’s Kerry who would have to oversee her confirmation hearings and urge wary Republicans against blocking her.
Of course, nominating Kerry could also create headaches for the White House.
His departure from the Senate could put a Democratic seat at risk, perhaps giving Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown a chance to return to Congress after losing to Democrat Elizabeth Warren earlier this month.
Kerry is serving his fifth term in the Senate, having been first elected to represent Massachusetts in 1984. He was the Democratic nominee for president in 2004, losing a close election to incumbent George W. Bush.
Before getting into politics, Kerry served two tours of duty in the Vietnam War, winning a Silver Star, Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts. But he became an outspoken critic of the war after returning home and testified before Congress about his opposition to U.S. policy.
Kerry’s service was called into question during his presidential run by a Republican-leaning outside group, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which accused Kerry of lying about his war record. Some Democrats blame Kerry’s slow response to the criticism for sinking his candidacy.
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