The early reviews for Chuck Hagel’s performance in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee may not be quite “Gigli”-level, but the consensus seems to be forming that he’s not doing well. Even Democrat Claire McCaskill was willing to go on TV and allow herself to be “candid” that Hagel did a poor job responding to senators’ questions.
Fortunately for Hagel, it almost certainly doesn’t matter. Spending a few hours on the defensive isn’t likely to sink his nomination — unless it was already doomed.
The first part of confirmation has always been to ensure that all 55 Democrats supported Hagel. That was essentially achieved during Hagel’s meeting with Democratic senators, if not earlier. It’s possible one or two Democrats might be tough votes, but unlikely he’ll lose any of them.
Now, you might think that 55 votes in a 100-vote chamber would be sufficient, but only if you haven’t been paying attention since January 2009. Whether or not Republicans ultimately insist on a cloture vote, they almost certainly will insist on 60 votes to confirm (that is, if Hagel has the votes, they might not allow the nomination to go straight to a final vote). So the second part has always been whether the former Republican senator can pick up five Senate Republicans. Prior to his confirmation hearing today, he had already scored one of those, Thad Cochran. That’s a good start; Cochran, a mainstream conservative, doesn’t seem to be a likely outlier. But he’ll need four more.
What really matters here, then, is whether the nomination becomes a litmus test, the kind of vote that senators worry will be used against them effectively in a primary election challenge. And that won’t be determined by Hagel’s confirmation hearing, which will be a one-day story; it will be determined, mostly, by internal Republican politics.
So far, I’m not convinced that we have enough information to assess the fate of the nomination. But I don’t think we learned very much about it from the hearing today.