January 7, 2013

President Obama is expected to name former Nebraska senator Chuck Hagel as his pick for Secretary of Defense this afternoon, despite weeks of opposition from conservative lawmakers, foreign policy thinkers, and activists. Hagel is a Republican, and his nomination is obviously part of an attempt by Obama to bolster his bipartisan bona fides and fulfill a pledge he made on election night last year: “In the coming weeks and months, I am looking forward to reaching out and working with leaders of both parties to meet the challenges we can only solve together.”

Naturally, Republican lawmakers are opposed to the nomination. But what’s interesting about that opposition is that it seems to implicitly recognize that the Hagel pick has bipartisan credibility. Indeed, conservatives are themselves trying to present the opposition to Hagel as representative of “both sides.” Here’s how Fox News presented the dispute this morning:

On Sunday, several Republican senators suggested they would have problems with Hagel, while Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said he is reserving judgment. Republicans question Hagel’s commitment to Israel and his toughness when it comes to Iran. But Hagel also has come under fire from gay rights groups for saying in 1998 that a nominee for an ambassador post was “openly, aggressively gay.”

As Greg pointed out earlier, Democrats will all but certainly line up behind the Hagel pick — he’ have the full support of the party. And so opponents need to try to create the impression that Hagel is a controversial nominee to both sides.

In fairness, the Hagel pick is in one sense controversial. If the Washington consensus on foreign policy leans heavily toward intervention and expansion of the national security state, then Hagel is one of a small handful of lawmakers in recent memory who have questioned the assumptions underlying both. He was a vocal critic of the Iraq War and the Bush administration’s adoption of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” and has shown real independence on how the United States should approach its relationship to Israel.

Hagel represents a nod towards bipartisanship, in the sense that he’s a Republican. At the same time, however, the choice challenges the bipartisan establishment consensus on how America should conduct itself in the world. This is ultimately what makes Obama’s choice so interesting, and confounding to those who would reflexively oppose it for partisan reasons.

Jamelle Bouie is a staff writer at The American Prospect, where he writes a blog.