Why Republicans don’t trust Chuck Hagel — in 5 easy steps

January 7, 2013

Former senator Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) be nominated later today as Defense Secretary, setting the stage for what appears set to be a contentious nomination fight.

And when it comes to that fight, Hagel will have a tough time finding many character witnesses from his former GOP colleagues.

Republicans have long been skeptical that Hagel is truly one of them, and it's not just because of his opposition to the Iraq war or his comments about Israel. In fact, there are several reasons dating back to before his first Senate campaign in 1996.

1. Donating to Democrats: Hagel's endorsement of Democratic former senator Bob Kerrey in the 2012 Nebraska Senate race wasn't the first time he has crossed over to back a Democrat. He also endorsed Rep. Joe Sestak's (D-Pa.) 2010 Senate campaign, and before his first campaign, he contributed $1,000 to Kerrey.

When Hagel backed Kerrey last year, Republicans including Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) questioned whether Hagel was really a Republican anymore. Hagel responded: “On whose standard is he judging me? That’s the problem with the Republican Party today. That has to stop."

Hagel also inflamed the GOP when he declined to back John McCain in the 2008 presidential race, despite their once-close friendship. Hagel's wife backed Obama in what was seen as a proxy endorsement, and Hagel himself suggested he would be open to being Obama's running mate that year.

2. Evolving positions on social issues: The year before the 1996 election, Hagel changed his positions to be against an assault weapons ban and against allowing abortion in the cases of rape and incest. The Omaha World-Herald reported in October 1995:

When he announced his candidacy in March, Hagel said he opposed abortion except to protect the life of the mother and in cases of rape and incest.

 

In an issues booklet Hagel's campaign released last week, Hagel said, "I am pro-life with one exception - the life of the mother." Hagel came under some fire from opponents of restrictions on gun ownership this year when he gave qualified approval to the federal ban on the sale of assault weapons. He said Wednesday that he would vote to repeal the assault-weapons ban.

 

The discrepancy "is my fault," Hagel said. "I was not ready to respond. I didn't have the facts." On the assault-weapons ban, Hagel said during a television appearance on KMTV-Channel 3 in May, "I probably would have voted for it." Hagel qualified his statement by saying he hadn't read the assault-weapons bill and understood there were some questions about the weapons named in the ban.

 

The reporter interviewing Hagel then asked, "So in general then, you could see yourself favoring a ban on assault weapons?" Hagel responded, "Yes." Hagel said Wednesday that he should have never answered that question without reading the bill. The Omaha investment banker said that was a lesson he learned.

 

"It's a bad bill," Hagel said. If he were in the Senate, Hagel said he would vote to repeal the ban.

Hagel suggested at the time that exceptions for rape and incest were unnecessary since those exceptions were rarely used in Nebraska. "If I want to prevent abortions, I don't think those two exceptions are relevant," he said. He wound up defeating conservative Don Stenberg for the GOP nomination -- how many times has Stenberg run for Senate and lost! --  and later won his first of two terms.

3. Foreign policy apostasy: Hagel began as a supporter of the Iraq war and voted for the Patriot Act. But eventually, he became one of the biggest critics of the war -- in either party -- and also spoke out against the Patriot Act (though he voted to reauthorize it in 2006) and the National Security Agency's warrantless wiretapping program.

In fact, the Washington Post editorial board even argued that Hagel is to President Obama's left when it come to foreign policy matters, and Republicans worry that Hagel would allow significant military budget cuts.

4. Spouting off: Hagel has made a habit of speaking his mind in no uncertain terms, including when it comes to bashing the GOP. During a forum in 2008, shortly before he retired from office, Hagel offered some harsh criticisms of his GOP colleagues.

On Rush Limbaugh: "You know, I wish Rush Limbaugh and others like that would run for office. They have so much to contribute and so much leadership and they have an answer for everything. And they would be elected overwhelmingly. ... (The truth is) they try to rip everyone down and make fools of everybody but they don't have any answers."

On GOP leadership: "But when you ask the question: 'Has (our approach) worked? I don't think many people will say it has worked. ... God knows I would never question the quality of our elected officials, that's why I'm so popular with many of them."

And this: "There is always going to be a certain know-nothing element to democracy. That is their choice. But in a world that is so vitally interconnected, it does help if you try to understand the other side. ... Ask them: 'What is it that scares you about the French so much?'"

He even went so far as to suggest impeachment for George W. Bush in 2007: “Any president who says, 'I don’t care, or I will not respond to what the people of this country are saying about Iraq or anything else,' or 'I don’t care what the Congress does, I am going to proceed' — if a president really believes that, then there are — what I was pointing out -- there are ways to deal with that."

And this is just a small sampling.

5. Israel: Hagel's statements about Israel have already been well-circulated. "The Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here," he said in 2006, but "I'm a United States senator. I'm not an Israeli senator."

But it's hard to under-estimate how important the issue is to the GOP -- particularly given the GOP's existing reservations about Obama's Israel policy and also because Hagel would be responsible in large part for dealing with the Middle East. This is very much a litmus test for many in the Republican Party, and it will make it difficult for any Republican senator to vote for him -- not to mention pro-Israel Democrats like Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.
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