NEW BRUNSWICK – Leading his opponent by double digits, according to most polls, U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) wants the chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, say sources, and his best shot at advancement hinges on President Barack Obama winning re-election.
The two men were seldom overly comfortable allies, a condition that makes all the more dramatic Menendez’s dependence on Obama winning a second term as president.
There’s a 2006 photo of Obama and the New Jersey senator jubilant onstage at a campaign event in Paterson, short-lived euphoria that dissipated utterly when the men turned up on opposite sides of a brutally developing Democratic Primary a year later.
Politics being what it is – daggers drawn in all weather under artful smiles and handshakes – it’s no newsflash to observe bitter, rancorous rivalry in two same party up-and-comers.
Yet Menendez’s forceful backing of Hillary Clinton for president in a 2007-2008 drawn-out war of political attrition put the New Jersey senator and Obama on considerably less than chummy terms than even the usual fangs-at-the-ready political animals.
Menendez’s friends regretfully describe Obama’s aloofness toward Menendez in the wake of his win over Clinton. There was an arranged meeting between the men in which Obama made it too obvious he didn’t mind inconveniencing Menendez, or so sources said – a blown opportunity that set the tone for the coming four years.
The chill culminated with no amplified role for Menendez at the Democratic National Convention.
The man who during the Ronald Reagan/Tom Kean era staved off a Republican Party takeover of Cuban Americans in Hudson County now watched from the darkness of a warm Charlotte night as a thirty-something Julian Castro assumed the role of the convention’s vigorous Latino leading man.
Obama’s comfort level in New Jersey – a 12-point lead on average over Mitt Romney at last glance – coupled with a national re-election strategy keeping him occupied in other states simply reinforced Menendez’s willful undertaking of a statewide re-election campaign with little or no connective tissue to the president’s operations.
Yet beyond the basic and obvious dimensions of power Democrats enjoy and seek with one of their own in the White House, Menendez has an additional very specific reason to want Obama to win re-election, sources say: his own power.
It’s not a given he will advance to the chairmanship, not in a dead-heat presidential election year, and certainly not given the turbulence of Washington, D.C., power politics.
Menendez’s advancement depends on the advancement of U.S. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), current chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and a leading candidate to succeed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who says whether Obama wins or loses, she’s done in the office.
Going back to early this year, reports say Kerry’s main competition for the job is U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, a close Obama ally and advisor in a White House long characterized as split between Valerie Jarrett forces on one side and Clinton forces on the other.
The rocky political aftermath of her appearance last month on Sunday morning talk shows suggests Rice may have a thornier path than Kerry to succeed Clinton as U.S. Secretary of State.
Using CIA talking points and relying on what she said was the best available intel at the time, Rice called “spontaneous” an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi that resulted in the death of U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
That report proved erroneous, provided fodder for the GOP to go on offense against the administration, and forced the second debate showdown between the president and Mitt Romney on Obama’s precise characterization of the attack.
As Rice absorbed criticism from the GOP, Kerry rushed to her defense.
“I’m deeply disturbed by efforts to find the politics instead of finding the facts in this debate,” Kerry said in a statement. “I’m particularly troubled by calls for Ambassador Rice’s resignation. She is a remarkable public servant for whom the liberation of the Libyan people has been a personal issue and public mission.”
Rice is pushing back hard on her own, pointing to available CIA intelligence that contradicted the Benghazi attack as an act of terror, but the high-profile fallout arguably puts Kerry in better position to become the next secretary of state. His forward position at the Democratic National Convention as the final Thursday night speaker before the President’s acceptance speech indicates his already prized position in Obamaland.
If Kerry follows his predecessor Biden and leaves the Senate to go to the administration, sources say Menendez is the favorite to become Senate Foreign Relations chairman.
Two other senators outrank the New Jerseyan on paper, but they already occupy power positions. California Sen. Barbara Boxer chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee; and Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin is the Senate Whip.
Menendez has good relations with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who ultimately decides committee chairmanships. “Reid has sent Bob on a number of missions, and been happy with the results,” said a source close to the New Jersey senator.
From recruiting for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, to convincing finance committee members to support the Affordable Care Act, to rousting floor votes for the Dream Act, Menendez has worked closely and well with Reid, said a second source.
He has put himself in a strong place to take advantage of a shift of power on the committee.
Now, from the command position of his own re-election campaign in New Jersey, Menendez watches the deadlocked Obama v. Romney race nationally, and awaits the hand of political fate.