Senate Democrats muscle big Obama donors into ambassadorships

Noah Bryson Mamet
A screen grab of Noah Bryson Mamet being questioned by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. (foreign.senate.gov)
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Olivier Knox
·Chief Washington Correspondent
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In one of their final acts before losing their majority to Republicans, Senate Democrats confirmed as ambassadors on Tuesday two big donors to President Barack Obama’s reelection campaign, despite a controversy over their qualifications.

David Bryson Mamet won confirmation as envoy to Argentina in a 50-43 vote, while senators agreed 52-42 to send Colleen Bell on her way to Hungary. No Republicans voted for either nominee, and several senators missed both ballots.

Before the votes, Sen. John McCain, R.-Ariz., passionately urged his colleagues to reject Bell’s nomination. He argued that whatever her talents for scooping up campaign cash and for producing “The Bold and the Beautiful,” Bell was “totally unqualified” for the ambassadorship.

“She is the producer of a soap opera, has no experience in foreign policy or national security, no familiarity with the language, country or region, has never been there, and lacks meaningful knowledge of history or economics,” McCain thundered on the Senate floor. “I’m sure television viewing is important in Hungary, but the fact is that this nominee is totally unqualified for this position.”

His remarks drew an equally passionate rebuttal from Sen. Barbara Boxer, D.-Calif.

“Just because somebody is a producer of a very popular show, that doesn’t disqualify them,” Boxer said. “She’s an intelligent woman. She knows how to be successful. She’ll do a good job, and she’ll do very well, I think, in this position, because I know her well and she knows how to make friends, and she’s not angry.”

Sen. Mary Landrieu, D.-La., facing an uphill reelection runoff vote, did not cast a ballot. Sen. Angus King of Maine, an independent, voted against both nominees.

For Mamet and Bell, Tuesday was probably a last shot at confirmation. Republicans have let it be known that Obama campaign donors nominated to important positions should not expect swift confirmation in the next Congress  if they ever get a vote at all.

The debate over Mamet and Bell had raged since early 2014, when their confirmation hearings raised questions about their qualifications. Each of them had raised at least $500,000 for Obama’s reelection campaign, after which he announced their nominations.

In Mamet’s case, Republican senators zeroed in on the fact that he has never been to Argentina. That was not a major stumbling block: It’s not uncommon even for career diplomats not to have set foot in a country before they are posted there. And nominees have tended not to visit their proposed post ahead of time in order to avoid giving the impression that they consider Senate confirmation a done deal.

Bell faced a rougher road after she struggled to answer McCain's question: “What are our strategic interests in Hungary?”

Shortly after the votes on Tuesday, White House press secretary Josh Earnest called the confirmations “long overdue” and insisted that Bell’s success as a campaign fundraiser was “not the reason that she was chosen.”

Bell is “somebody who obviously has succeeded in the business world,” Earnest told reporters. “And she is somebody that the president has confidence will be able to maintain our relationship with the government and the people of Hungary.”

Political appointees can make sterling diplomats. By all accounts, Caroline Kennedy has been doing a good job as ambassador to Japan. Charles Rivkin went on from being executive producer of the children's television show “Yo Gabba Gabba!” to a highly regarded stint as ambassador to France — so highly regarded that he won Senate confirmation by a lopsided 92-6 vote earlier this year to be assistant secretary of state for economic and business affairs.

Obama did not invent the practice of naming bigtime donors to diplomatic posts for which they are questionably qualified. Past presidents have generally maintained a 70-30 ratio of career diplomats to political appointees. In Obama’s second term so far, however, the ratio has been 58.6 percent to 41.4 percent.

Back in early 2009, Obama said at a press conference that he expected to nominate “high-quality civil servants.”

“Are there going to be political appointees to ambassadorships? There probably will be some. It would be disingenuous for me to suggest that there are not going to be some excellent public servants but who haven't come through the ranks of the civil service,” he said.

Some of the political picks have not fared so well.

Democratic fundraiser Cynthia Stroum was so “bullying, hostile, and intimidating” that morale at the U.S. embassy in Luxembourg plummeted, according to a State Department inspector general’s report. The report said she focused too much on a bathroom renovation and improperly circumvented State Department rules so that she could be reimbursed for a queen-size mattress.

The Southern California finance co-chairwoman of Obama’s 2008 campaign, Nicole Avant, went missing from the embassy in the Bahamas for 276 days between September 2009 and November 2011, according to a January 2012 State Department inspector general’s report. Her absences included 102 “personal leave” days, and 77 business travel days to the United States, only 23 of which were on official orders.

At an April 2011 Democratic National Committee fundraiser, Obama gave Avant a shout-out.

“And our ambassador to the Bahamas, Nicole Avant, is in the house,” he said, to laughter from the crowd. “It’s a nice gig, isn’t it?”

A nice gig? If you can get it.