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November 25, 2012

Michael Cuzzi: GOP still operating on outdated notions

Despite two weeks of soul searching and finger-pointing, Republican Party leaders appear determined to ignore the lessons of the 2012 election.

Republicans lost in large measure because their national candidate, message and policies offered women and minority voters little hope they'd be understood or represented in a Romney White House or a Republican-led U.S. Senate.

Exit polls showed Democrats won these voters handily.

Yet even in the wake of Republican underperformance with these groups, Republican Party leaders continue to demonstrate a remarkable inability to unshackle themselves from a base that is older, whiter, more conservative and increasingly male.

Enter Charlie Webster. The Maine Republican Party chairman recently became the national personification of the party's struggle to embrace America's rapidly changing demographics.

Webster made the fantastical claim that Maine Republicans lost in part because "hundreds" of mysterious black people voted in rural Maine, the whitest state in the union.

The statement would be laughable if it weren't both so offensive and so illustrative of the party's larger challenges.

Yet not a single elected Maine Republican leader -- not the governor, the speaker, or the Senate president -- stepped up to rebuke Webster even though his comments warranted their public disdain and despite having every practical political reason for doing so at virtually no political cost.

While Maine's racial demographics are decidedly less complex than the nation's, that neither excuses their silence nor renders it less significant.

What's more, Maine Republicans aren't the only ones staring the 2012 national election in the eye and missing its lessons.

Republican U.S. Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham have pursued a politically tone- deaf post-election campaign against U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice.

Rice, a distinguished diplomat with several decades of public service at the White House and Department of State, is the highest ranking African American woman in the president's administration and the daughter of Lois Dickson Rice, a prominent Mainer from Portland's Munjoy Hill neighborhood.

McCain and Graham have accused Ambassador Rice of misleading the public about the attack in Benghazi, Libya, that tragically claimed the life of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.

Rice's supposed offense is that she didn't initially label the Benghazi assault a "terrorist attack" -- which it was -- but delivered the public talking points developed, vetted and approved by the country's coordinated intelligence agencies in order to protect then-classified information and to avoid tipping off the terrorists involved.

Regardless, McCain and Graham have been unrelenting in their efforts to publicly impugn Rice's credibility, questioning her trustworthiness and qualifications despite a long, respected career and a reputation for effectiveness.

Amid speculation that Rice could replace Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, 97 House Republicans piled on with a letter to President Obama calling Rice "unfit" to serve in that role.

Why pursue a smear campaign against Rice?

For the occasionally-centrist Graham, the likely answer is to create rhetorical distance and public antagonism with the president in the hope of avoiding a Republican primary challenge in South Carolina when he's up for re-election in 2014.

For the typically pragmatic McCain, the answer is less clear. But it doesn't change the fact that this is a practical and political loser for McCain, Graham and the Republican party in both the short and long term.

First, Rice did her job.

The appropriateness and validity of her statements immediately after the attack have been corroborated by both the president and -- more importantly -- the country's intelligence community.

In fact, McCain and Graham are questioning her "fitness" precisely because Rice didn't go rogue and publicly divulge classified information, an act that surely would make her unfit to serve.

Second, the senators' target is misplaced.

Rather than besmirch Rice for delivering the best publicly disclosable post-attack intelligence, McCain and Graham would better serve themselves, their party and their country by investigating why America wasn't prepared to defend its diplomats in a fluid and devolving security environment.

Third, the senators are on shaky precedential ground.

They launched no such criticisms or character assassinations after then-Secretary of State Colin Powell delivered his infamous and demonstrably wrong weapons of mass destruction presentation to the U.N. in 2003 (a moment Powell later recalled as "the lowest point in my life.")

Nor did they threaten to filibuster or publicly oppose Condoleezza Rice's appointment to secretary of state under George W. Bush in 2005, even though she was a chief architect in both developing and publicly delivering the administration's erroneous rationale for war in Iraq.

Finally, the political optics are wrong for Republicans.

McCain and Graham, two powerful, older white male senators, are misguidedly attacking and scapegoating a respected African American woman with a distinguished public service career.

It's precisely the sort of self-reinforcing post-election storyline Republicans need least as they attempt to rebuild their parochial political brand.

Perhaps there are forward-thinking Republican leaders in Washington whispering quietly in the ears of McCain and Graham, urging them to step back.

But, just as in Maine, the absence of public disapproval is most readily understood as private concurrence.

Michael Cuzzi is a former campaign aide to President Obama, Sen. John Kerry and former U.S. Rep. Tom Allen. He manages the Portland office of VOX Global, a strategic communications and public affairs firm headquartered in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at:

mjcuzzi@gmail.com

or @CuzzMJ on Twitter





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