Chuck Hagel, Susan Rice and the new normal for Cabinet nominations

December 20, 2012

For the second time in a matter of weeks, a top pick for one of President Obama's top Cabinet posts is running into some real roadblocks.

And perhaps nothing is a better metaphor for the increasing polarization of American politics.


Former senator Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.). (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Former senator Chuck Hagel's (R-Neb.) potential/likely nomination as Secretary of Defense looms this week amid a growing chorus of criticism over his past comments about Israel and his policy positions on issues including the defense budget. 

It seems some are bent on defeating Hagel's nomination before it can even become official -- much as Republican senators did with potential Secretary of State pick Susan Rice just last week. In fact, the same GOP senators who scuttled the Rice pick are now expressing doubts about Hagel.

A battle over Hagel would be highly unusual -- both because we just had one over Rice and because both senators nominated to Cabinet posts and Secretary of Defense nominees generally sail to confirmation.

(Side note: Democrats will note that neither Rice nor Hagel has actually been nominated. But the White House, to this point, doesn't seem to be disputing reports that each of them are/were the frontrunners. And the fact that they are being attacked before even being nominated speaks, better than just about anything, to our point about polarization.)

Most presidents only run into a couple problem nominations during their entire presidencies -- only 21 Cabinet nominees in history have been defeated or withdrawn -- but Obama may have two in a span of a month.

What's more, secretary nominees for State and Defense in particular have cruised through the confirmation process. No Secretary of State nominee has ever been defeated, and the only Secretary of Defense nominee to fall was John Tower, who succumbed to personal issues in 1989.

Tower, as it happens, was a former senator like Hagel. And if defeating Cabinet nominees is the exception, defeating senators who are nominated to the Cabinet is highly exceptional. The combination of the upper chamber's traditional comity between members and the fact that the Senate is generally deferential to a president's Cabinet picks has made a senator an almost ideal -- and almost always safe -- pick.

At least until now.

While Tower's rejection was a rarity at the time, in recent years then-Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Mo.) was the subject of a hugely contentious confirmation as attorney general, former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) had his nomination to head the Department of Health and Human Services scuttled thanks to tax issues, and now Hagel is running into his own problems.

Opposition to Hagel's nomination is particularly striking given his past as a war hero in Vietnam and what we might otherwise consider to be bipartisan appeal.

For Hagel, though, his problem seems to be that he's less of a bipartisan figure than he is a man without a political home.

He served in the Senate as a Republican, but he has strongly distanced himself from his former party's foreign policy in recent years (and, as the Post's editorial board wrote this week, may actually be significantly to Obama's left on defense matters). At the same time, he doesn't have years of goodwill built up with Democrats either.

So even as we've seen opposition to Hagel ramp up in recent days, we have yet to see many of his former colleagues leap to his defense -- even amongst Democrats. (Tower's Senate colleagues were not particularly fond of him, either, which contributed to his defeat.)

Whether or not Hagel gets some back-up in the coming days will say a lot about whether he would have significant problems getting confirmed.

As of now, his potential nomination threatens to exacerbate already-lingering tensions between Obama and supporters of Israel, and also between Obama and the GOP.

Whether it's merely a momentary headache or another potential failed Cabinet pick, it's far too early to say.

What we do know is that the early opposition to Hagel is a perfect example of the politicization of, well, basically everything.

McConnell poll shows him up four on Judd: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) would start out with a four-point lead on actress Ashley Judd (D), according to a new poll conducted for McConnell's campaign by Voter/Consumer Research and shared with The Fix.

The finding mirrors a recent poll conducted by Democratic automated pollster Public Policy Polling. That poll showed the same head-to-head, with McConnell at 47 percent and Judd at 43 percent, but had McConnell with a very high disapproval rating -- 55 percent.

In contrast to the PPP poll, McConnell's poll, from pollster Jan van Lohuizen, shows the senator with a solid 51 percent approval rating and just 40 percent disapproving.

The poll also tested a number of GOP lines of attack on Judd, including the fact that she has homes in Scotland and Tennessee but not her native Kentucky, her support for Obamacare and abortion rights and her anti-coal comments. All, as one might expect, poll poorly in conservative Kentucky and move voters into McConnell's camp.

The poll was conducted from Dec. 10 to Dec. 13.

Majority back major gun legislation: Another national poll shows rising support for gun control. Fifty-two percent of Americans support major gun legislation, including and up to an outright ban, according to a new poll from CNN and Opinion Research.

The poll shows 37 percent support "major restrictions" and 15 percent prefer an outright ban. On the other side, 33 percent say there should be minor restrictions and 13 percent say there should be none.

A very strong majority -- 62 percent -- approve of a ban on semi-automatic assault guns and high-capacity ammunition clips, which Senate Democrats are pushing, but another majority -- 52 percent -- says people should not be prevented from buying multiple guns.

Fixbits:

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) was seen Wednesday whipping votes for his "Plan B" vote on Thursday. The bill would extend all the Bush tax cuts on income below $1 million -- something Democrats have criticized as a half-measure and a gimmick when it comes to the "fiscal cliff."

A top adviser to Mitt Romney blames the campaign's over-matched ground game.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) will remain as chairman of the Judiciary Committee rather than take the gavel of the Senate Appropriations Committee, as previously thought. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) will take the latter job.

Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) says he supports the assault weapons ban, though he likely won't be in the Senate when it comes up for a vote after his November defeat.

Must-reads:

"Fundraising starts up soon after election, filings show" -- T.W. Farnam, Washington Post

"GOP Consultants Seek to Regain Control" -- Abby Livingston, Roll Call

"Even before Newtown tragedy, NRA was losing Democratic support" -- Peter Wallsten and Tom Hamburger, Washington Post

"Lessons in Politics and Fine Print in Assault Weapons Ban of ’90s" -- Michael Luo and Michael Cooper, New York Times

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix, the Post’s top political blog.
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Sean Sullivan | December 19, 2012