It’s not just weak-kneed RINOs John McCain and Lindsey Graham doing Obama’s heavy lifting for him as he leaves for Europe after punting on Syria. Even alleged old foe Bob Menendez is happy to get in the game. The two supposedly have some bad blood dating back to 2008 when the sleazy New Jersey Democrat supported Hillary Clinton, but now as Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Menendez will be getting attention for something other than his alleged dalliances with underaged hookers and couldn’t be happier.
The call from the White House was not unexpected. Back in New Jersey for the August recess, Sen. Robert Menendez answered the phone Thursday evening, fully expecting to learn final details of President Obama’s plan for attacking Syria.
The Democratic senator, a social liberal with foreign policy views that border on the hawkish, is in his rookie season as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. The Syria chemical-weapons crisis would mark Menendez’s first moment front-and-center on the international stage as leader of the critical Senate panel.
It was to be a chance for the backroom brawler from the city streets of North Jersey to finally step out of the shadow of his predecessors, John Kerry (now secretary of state) and Joe Biden (now vice president) — and to prove to his critics he deserved his coveted spot.
That Thursday phone call was not unexpected. But it did offer a surprise. A huge surprise. Instead of hearing strike details, Menendez listened as the president explained he was thinking of altering course and holding off on an attack so he could secure congressional approval for military action.
Never a fan of Obama or his laid-back style, which the administration described during the build-up to effort to depose Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi as “leading from behind,” Menendez was now on the verge of becoming the unlikely go-to guy for a White House quickly bleeding support and credibility.
Less than two days later, Obama went to the Rose Garden to make official his plan to go to Capitol Hill. With that, the president put Menendez — a man he doesn’t like — in charge of what could be the most critical foreign-policy initiative of his fledgling second term.
“When you’re president, you don’t always get to choose the legislator you need on a particular issue,” said Princeton University public affairs professor Julian Zelizer, an expert on presidential leadership.
But, Zelizer acknowledged, Obama’s decision to deputize Menendez on such a critical issue is “risky.”
“The whole thing (Syria attack question) is risky at this point and, on top of it, to have a Democratic who’s shaky on you can make you nervous,” Zelizer said. “Obama is going to be a little bit nervous. This is someone he doesn’t fully trust.”
Other than his boss Valerie Jarrett, is there anyone Obama trusts? We get the feeling Obama doesn’t even trust himself. Whatever the case, Menendez is savoring this opportunity to regain his credibility.
What has been left unsaid is the Obama-Menendez history that looms large for two former Senate colleagues, both well-spoken lawyers and former state lawmakers whose careers in Washington were born in the tough, old-school political incubators of Chicago and Jersey City.
“This is an extraordinary moment,” one Menendez intimate told ABC News. “It’s a moment of sweet — not revenge because that would be too strong. But it’s a moment that’s sweet.”
So contemplating unpopular military action in a place with no national interests is now “extraordinary” and “sweet”? Glad to know these people are taking their jobs seriously. ALong with it being a “sweet” moment, this time of uncertainty is also a chance to enact revenge.
Zelizer said Menendez also has the chance right now to use the Syria crisis and the weight of the White House to push back against critics, like The New York Times editorial board, who suggested the senator was “never a distinguished choice” to lead the Foreign Relations Committee.
“This is a big-opportunity, high-profile moment for him,” Zelizer said. “Electoral interests and party interests are big in Washington, and those could easily overcome any kind of personal animosity these two men have for each other.”
It’s almost as if personal pride comes before country here.