Not surprisingly, the president in his nomination announcement dwelled on Chuck Hagel’s war service and injuries rather than his qualifications to head the Pentagon, his views on national security or his trail of disturbing comments. The president, of course, offers a straw man defense of Hagel. No Republican or Democrat denies or denigrates Hagel’s service; the question is whether his ideas, judgments and skills are appropriate to the job of defense secretary.
As for the Hagel’s myriad problems, it is quite possible the White House has yet to get its story straight and hence the less said the better. However, Hagel will soon need to meet with key senators and he better figure out compelling explanations for those problem areas or the meetings will go about as well as Susan Rice’s forays. Indeed, judging from the president’s words you would think he was appointing Hagel to some low level commission on morale, not a key strategy position.
Meanwhile, Republicans were, for once, unified. The best Hagel could do even from home state Republican Sen. Deb Fischer was a promise to conduct a fair review of his record. It is not inconceivable that the large majority of Republicans will vote against him, putting the onus on Democrats to decide if they really want to put their seal of approval on Hagel.
Among the most forceful comments came from House Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.): “I am profoundly concerned and disappointed by President Obama’s nomination of former Senator Chuck Hagel to be Secretary of Defense. Recent reporting has made clear that Senator Hagel’s views and inflammatory statements about Israel are well outside the mainstream and raise well-founded doubts that he can be trusted to manage the special relationship the United States shares with our greatest Middle East ally. . . . Senator Chuck Hagel is the wrong man for the job at such a pivotal time.”
Certainly, Cantor will not vote on the confirmation but Virginia’s two Democratic senators will and Cantor has just made it a wee bit more uncomfortable for them to approve of Hagel. (Would he enter the 2014 Senate race against Sen. Mark Warner (R-Va.)?)
Taking a step back, since the fiscal cliff deal we see how the two parties stand. Republicans are united on entitlement reform and using the debt ceiling to pressure the president into fiscal sobriety. They are united on a strong defense, support for Israel and robust sanctions against Iran. And the Democrats? A good number are in the witness protection program, it seems, unwilling to pipe up about Hagel and nervous about endorsing the White House’s calls for even more taxes.
So what do the Democrats stand for: Throwing bric-bracs at our democratic ally Israel and refusing to reform entitlement programs? The Senate (and House) in the coming months will have to decide what record and views they will embrace and be forced to defend before the electorate without Obama’s name on the ballot.