How Obama can avoid McCain's trap on Rice

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Both parties have been confounded by moderate Independents which is what Rockefeller Republicans have morphed into. Many Rockefeller Republicans changed their registration over the last decade and more now refer to themselves as Independents, regardless of registration. They side with Democrats on foreign policy, tax equity and social issues like contraception and gay marriage. But on questions like health care coverage, debt and deficit they still lean Republican.    

Rockefeller Republicans got tired of not only losing statewide Republican primaries, but grew disheartened because a moderate candidate for president can no longer make a dent in Republican primaries (Huntsman in 2012 was even more anemic as a candidate than Anderson in 1980).

A word on these Rockefeller Republicans. On debt and deficit questions these voters are far more conservative than their namesake Nelson Rockefeller.  What marks modern day Rockefeller Republicans is a strong rejection of neo-conservative adventurism in foreign policy, tied to distrust of liberal spending reflexes. They support pro-choice positions, gay marriage, higher education, environmental protection and they intrinsically mistrust what they consider the right wing assault on science (from climate change to creationism).

There is also a cultural quotient to this bloc of voters, as they are highly educated and affluent. They reside in the suburbs of the Northeast and Midwest (e.g., New England, New York, Philadelphia and Columbus) and the Pacific Coast (e.g., Palo Alto, California and King 
County in Washington State), as well as the ideopolis communities surrounding major universities like Ann Arbor, Michigan and Boulder, Colorado. Standing alone these Rockefeller Republicans are not potent, especially in primaries, but in close general elections they often become the balance of power.

In 2012, Obama clawed back to lose Independents by only 5 percent (50-45 percent) powered by his edge amongst moderates (56-41 over Romney) according to the exit polls.

This late surge was helped significantly by the late endorsements from Colin Powell and Michael Bloomberg, sending a clear signal to Rockefeller Republicans. 

In fact, what really rankled national Republicans about Chris Christie’s embrace of Obama, in a testament to post Hurricane Sandy bipartisanship, was their fear that Chris Christie was morphing into a Rockefeller Republican, when they had considered him a Northeastern outpost for movement conservatism.

The further irony is that this happened against Romney, whose parents were both leading exemplars of Rockefeller Republicanism. Mitt Romney’s father George had Romney stormed out of the Cow Place in 1964 that nominated Goldwater over civil rights and his mother Lenore was pillorried in her race for the U.S. Senate in 1970 by conservative Republicans for her pro-choice views. In fact, Romney’s presidential campaigns often appeared to be an exaggerated attempt to bleach this strain of Rockefeller Republicanism from his political persona. 

Now Senate Republicans led by John McCain have made Susan Rice their lightning rod. Speculation is simmering that McCain not only wants Rice’s political pelt on his belt, but to force the nomination of his friend John Kerry as Secretary of State, instead of Rice. 

If President Obama pivots, he can use Rockefeller Republicans as an antidote to McCain’s tactic, by nominating either Colin Powell or Dick Lugar as Secretary of State. Either nomination is one that McCain could not block and would be hard pressed to oppose. Then Powell or Lugar could name Rice as their top deputy, setting her up to get beyond the current controversy over Libya. That in turn paves the road for her to become a late second term Secretary of State, in the distinguished tradition of Christian Herter for Eisenhower and Edmund Muskie for Carter. 

Obama’s instinct on Susan Rice, may be to roar like a lion, but instead he should harken back to the other half of Machiavelli’s parable, as it may be the time to act like a fox, by engaging Rockefeller Republicans, to escape McCain’s trap.   

Gyory is a political consultant with Corning Place Communications in Albany, New York and an adjunct professor of Political Science at the University of Albany.