Ignore the old men in the Senate

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The hissing between two GOP senators, John McCain and Lindsey Graham, and President Barack Obama about the possible choice of U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan E. Rice as Mr. Obama's second-term secretary of state indicates that the Republicans have a problem. The fulminations of Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell on the "fiscal cliff" negotiations seem another indication.

The problem is that the Republicans apparently haven't yet realized that their candidate, Mitt Romney, lost the presidential election. Either they haven't yet taken the loss on board, or they are trying to pretend to themselves or to the country that the vote on Nov. 6 didn't go against them.

Older politicians like Mr. McConnell and Mr. McCain may find it difficult to accept unexpected setbacks. If that's the problem, we can hope they will eventually grasp what occurred and become more reasonable. Mr. Obama is so far trying to be conciliatory. During his press conference last Wednesday, for example, he tried to make compromise on the fiscal cliff easier to achieve, but he might make things worse by being nice.

What is utterly unacceptable is that the white-haired bedfellows, Mr. Graham and Mr. McCain, are trying to block, in advance, Mr. Obama's ability to choose a secretary of state to replace the departing Hillary R. Clinton.

It is normal and makes sense that any president, first or second term, has the right to name the members of his team, his Cabinet. The Senate has the right to advise and consent, of course, but unless there is something egregiously wrong with a presidential nominee, it is not right for them to obstruct the process. The president nominates, and the senators hold hearings, ask the nominee as many tough questions as they wish, then vote up or down.

Whoever one thinks should be secretary of state, these two have no right to say now, before Mr. Obama has even decided on a nominee, that they will oppose one possible choice he might make.

Mr. McConnell, with regard to the fiscal cliff, acts as if he still thinks his first priority is to see that Mr. Obama doesn't get a second term, even though the president just won one.

Mr. Obama faces a range of tough personnel choices. Vacant -- or probably soon to be vacant -- are the positions of secretary of state, secretary of defense, national security adviser, CIA director, treasury secretary, senior military slots and perhaps attorney general, among others. A top priority for the president has to be plugging the best talent he can find into these positions. He can look at governors, legislators, ambassadors, senior businesspersons and bankers, military officers, college presidents and nontraditional sources for such leaders.

One candidate for secretary of state is Ms. Rice. She was Mr. Obama's prime foreign affairs adviser during his presidential campaigns. He trusts her judgment. There were probably two reasons she wasn't his first secretary of state.

One was that he wanted to bring Hillary Clinton's mighty talents on board his new administration and show clearly that there were no hard feelings between him and the Clintons after he had beaten Ms. Clinton in the Democratic primaries. The second reason was that Ms. Rice is a female African-American. If he had chosen her in 2008 she would have succeeded Condoleezza Rice, also a female African-American. That might have been a bit too much for some of America's international interlocuters, if not for Americans.

Ms. Clinton turned out to have been a good choice, and Ms. Rice's consolation prize, the ambassadorship to the United Nations, seems to have worked out reasonably well also.

A second, much-talked-about possibility for Mr. Obama's second secretary of state is Sen. John Kerry. He carries a lot of prestige as the Democratic candidate for president in 2004. He now serves as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which means he knows the issues. He also has presence and dignity.

One problem with Mr. Kerry is that, if he resigns his Massachusetts Senate seat to become secretary of state, a Republican might win it, perhaps even Sen. Scott P. Brown, who was defeated this month by liberal Democrats' Joan of Arc, Elizabeth Warren. This would reduce by one the Democrats' majority in the Senate.

Other candidates have been mentioned for secretary of state. One is National Security Adviser Thomas E. Donilon. His candidacy is weakened by the fact that he was a longtime lobbyist for the somewhat odious Fannie Mae, the federally chartered mortgage finance company that was heavily involved in sending the country into recession in 2008.

Another person mentioned is former Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Republican from Nebraska, who knows foreign affairs. Choosing him would make Mr. Obama look bipartisan and reasonable. Another Republican possibility is former presidential candidate, former governor of Utah and former U.S. Ambassador to Singapore and China Jon M. Huntsman.

My choice would be Gary F. Locke. He was governor of Washington state for eight years, secretary of commerce and now is the U.S. ambassador to China. Mr. Locke is Asian-American; by choosing him Mr. Obama would check another important post-election box.

Whomever Mr. Obama chooses, he should not let himself get boxed in by old men in the Senate. Nov. 6 showed a new voting pattern. Mr. Obama needs fresh blood for his new term. The American people should defend stoutly his right to put his own choices on his new team.


Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (dsimpson@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1976).


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