Next Rice critic to emerge not exactly a sexist conservative cavedweller

So far, defenders of Susan Rice’s attempts to flack a false narrative on behalf of the White House have tried smearing her critics as either racist or sexist conservative troglodytes. After Kelly Ayotte took the lead among the Senate Republican caucus in opposing Rice’s rumored nomination to State, at least temporarily, the same defenders dismissed her as window dressing.  However, the next potential critic won’t be so easily dismissed.  Maureen Dowd checked in with Susan Collins, one of the GOP’s moderates, who will meet with Rice today to get answers to a few questions on her mind as well:

Collins drew up a list of questions to ask Rice at their one-on-one hourlong meeting slated for Wednesday. She wants Rice to explain how she could promote a story “with such certitude” about a spontaneous demonstration over the anti-Muslim video that was so at odds with the classified information to which the ambassador had access. (It was also at odds with common sense, given that there were Al Qaeda sympathizers among the rebel army members that overthrew Muammar el-Qaddafi with help from the U.S. — an intervention advocated by Rice — and Islamic extremist training camps in the Benghazi area.)

The F.B.I. interviewed survivors of the attack in Germany and, according to some senators, had done most of the interviews of those on site by Sept. 15, the day before Rice went on TV, and established that there was no protest. Collins wants to learn if the F.B.I. had failed to communicate that, or if they had communicated it and Rice went ahead anyway?

When Rice heard the president of the Libyan National Congress tell Bob Schieffer on “Face the Nation,” right before her appearance, that 50 people had been arrested who were either foreign or affiliated with or sympathized with Al Qaeda, why did she push back with the video story? “Why wouldn’t she think what the Libyan president said mattered?” Collins wondered.

Why did Rice say on ABC News’s “This Week,” that “two of the four Americans who were killed were there providing security”? Rice was referring to the two ex-Navy SEAL team members who were C.I.A. security officers working on a base about a mile away. “They weren’t there to protect Ambassador Stevens,” Collins said. “That wasn’t their job.”

Rice also said that “we had a substantial security presence with our personnel” — which was clearly not the case. Collins wants to know Rice’s basis for saying on ABC that the attacks were “a direct result of a heinous and offensive video.” And why did she say “a small number of people” came to the consulate to protest, when that phrase is not in her talking points? Collins is curious why Rice is not angrier, if, as she insists, she was repeating what she was told. “I’d be furious at the White House and F.B.I. and intelligence community for destroying my credibility,” the senator said.

This will be an interesting story to watch today, and it will probably determine Rice’s viability.  If Collins pronounces herself satisfied with Rice’s answers, it will cut the ground from underneath Ayotte, John McCain, and Lindsey Graham.  If not — and it’s difficult to see how Rice can provide answers that will satisfy anyone at this point other than “I was duped,” which isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement for a Cabinet position — then John Kerry should start preparing his confirmation-hearing testimony.

Collins tells Dowd that she’s been supportive of Rice in the past, but this episode has the Senator “troubled.”  She asks Dowd rhetorically a question that moves the story from being a dupe or even a protector of the President to something more like naked self-interest on Rice’s part: “Did they think admitting that it was an Al Qaeda attack would destroy the narrative of Libya being a big success story?”  Dowd connects the dots in the final sentence:

As one of the administration champions of intervening in Libya, Rice was surely rooting for that success story herself.

Indeed — and it was not just in Obama’s interest to see that narrative survive.

Jim Geraghty puts the stakes in perspective:

Collins indicates that she’s willing to support Rice if she gets good answers. But the confirmation hearings may turn out to be brutal, with senators asking fair, basic, and extremely important questions, and Rice’s answers will either indicate a suspicion/belief that she was telling the American people false information, or a level of blind credulity that is deeply disturbing in any U.S. official, never mind a Secretary of State.

It will be interesting to watch Democrats insisting that Susan Collins is motivated by sexism and racism, and that she only is expressing doubts about Rice’s honesty because she’s just another rabid, right-wing, hardline conservative ideologue…

UPDATE: I’ll bet Democrats think Sen. Kelly Ayotte, Republican of New Hampshire who is pledging to put a “hold” on any Rice nomination, is just as driven by sexism…

Keep an eye on the outcome today.