Chuck Hagel’s performance yesterday was so atrocious that both the Republicans and the White House are dazed.
“It’s somewhere between baffling and incomprehensible,” a member of Mr. Obama’s own team of advisers on Iran said on Thursday night when asked about Mr. Hagel’s stumbling performance on the question during the all-day hearing. The worry was evident in the voice of the official, who would not speak on the record while criticizing the performance of the president’s nominee. For those who question whether the no-containment cornerstone of the Obama approach to Tehran is for real, or just diplomatic rhetoric, Mr. Hagel clearly muddled the message, he said.
Mr. Hagel’s flubbing of the answer was even more remarkable because in his prepared remarks to the committee, which were carefully vetted by the White House and then e-mailed to reporters before the hearing, he got the president’s position exactly right. “As I said in the past many times, all options must be on the table,” Mr. Hagel said, in a statement meant to clean up past comments by the former Nebraska senator suggesting that an attack on Iran’s nuclear sites would be so disastrous that it was not a feasible alternative. “My policy has always been the same as the president’s, one of prevention, not of containment. And the president has made clear that is the policy of our government.”
Senate Republican Whip John Cornyn is specifically refusing to rule out a filibuster. His office told me by phone, “All options are on the table.”
There are two issues that change the dynamics in the Hagel nomination. First, in saying it “didn’t matter” what he thought and that he “wouldn’t be running anything,” Hagel admitted he would not be doing critical parts of the job to do the job.
In addition, there is real fear that he is incapable of handling his duties. If a Benghazi or worse, God forbid, occurred on Hagel’s watch, the Senate would be complicit in installing an incompetent Pentagon chief.
Democrats are also nervous. In addition to his confusion over containment, Hagel said Iran’s regime was the “elected and legitimate” government. (He later dropped the legitimate part.) A former Democratic Hill staffer told me: “Hagel’s performance caused deep concern. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton repeatedly said Iran is a military dictatorship. So who is right: Secretary Clinton or Chuck Hagel?” The ex-staffer added: “He can’t even get down his own talking points. What does that mean when he goes out and the whole world is listening?”
This morning, Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) on TV announced he was a “no” vote but threw cold water on a filibuster. An aide in a senior Senate office said this is not the thinking of the rest of the Senate GOP contingent. “They are going to take the weekend to think about it, to think through all the ramifications,” the aide said.
The “real” vote is the cloture vote in this case, unless Democrats develop a conscience. In person, via phone and in e-mails, three leaders of anti-Hagel groups (who would speak only on background) were visibly annoyed and agitated about Blunt. They know full well that a vote for cloture would be a vote to put Hagel in the Pentagon. I strongly suspect very few, if any, Republicans are going to be stepping out on that limb anytime soon.