Chuck Hagel was bad. And it doesn’t matter.

January 31, 2013

Former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel was, at turns, halting, befuddled and, often, just plain bad during his confirmation hearing to be the next Secretary of Defense. And it almost certainly won't keep him from becoming the next man to lead the Pentagon.


Former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel. AP photo

Let's start with what Hagel did wrong.  He appeared to be taken completely aback by the aggressiveness of the questioning from many of his former Republican colleagues on long-hashed over topics like his posture toward Iran and Israel as well as his past statements regarding the surge in Iraq.

This exchange with his one-time friend John McCain over Iraq was typical of how poorly Hagel fared in the give and take of the day:

Hagel not only should have been more ready for the questions he struggled with but also for the confrontational tone in which many of them were asked.  There is nothing -- we repeat nothing -- that members of one party dislike more than a politician who they view as having abandoned the party (and them).  And, Hagel's distancing from his party viewpoint on Iraq and his all-but-official support for Obama's presidential campaigns are the sort of thing that just don't sit very well with his former colleagues.

Before condemning the Hagel hearing as solely a partisan witch hunt conducted by vindicative Republicans seeking revenge on Hagel, don't forget what Missouri Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill, a longtime ally of President Obama, had to say about Hagel's performance.

"Chuck Hagel is much more comfortable asking questions than answering them.," McCaskill told NBC's Andrea Mitchell. "That's one bad habit you get into when you've been in the Senate -- you can dish it out but sometimes it's a little more difficult to take it."

In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone not blood related to Hagel who will tell you that he did extremely well at Thursday's hearing. And, yes, there are some reports that Republicans are keeping open the possibility of blocking Hagel's nomination from a vote on the Senate floor.

But, amid all of that sturm und drang regarding Hagel's poor performance, it's also important to remember that if history is any guide, the former Nebraska Senator is still very likely to be confirmed.

The reason is simple: Democrats appear to still be on board with Hagel.  And as long as Democrats don't break ranks that means that Hagel will get through the Senate Armed Services Committee (where Democrats hold a 14-12 edge) and a full Senate vote (where Democrats or Democratic-aligned independents control 55 seats).

Short of Democrats peeling away en masse from Hagel, which they seem unlikely to do -- as much from loyalty to President Obama as any allegiance to the former Nebraska Republican Senator -- the only way that he wouldn't be confirmed is if Republicans choose to block his nomination.

And, historically speaking that is very rarely done. As the Post's Paul Kane reminds us, Attorney General Michael Mukasey refused to call waterboarding torture during his own confirmation hearings in 2007 -- a position that deeply rankled Democrats.  But, Mukasey managed to be confirmed with 53 votes, including Democratic Sens. Evan Bayh (Ind.), Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), Mary Landrieu (La.), Joe Lieberman (Conn.) and Ben Nelson (Neb.).

Now, the past isn't always a perfect -- or even close -- guide to the future.  Republicans could, of course, choose this moment to provoke a major showdown with President Obama but, given their decision to back down on both the fiscal cliff and the debt ceiling in recent weeks, it seems unlikely that's the course they will choose.

So, in the end, McCain, Jim Inhofe, Ted Cruz, Lindsey Graham and lots of other Republicans won't vote for Hagel. Fifty (or one or two more) of the 55 Democrats in the Senate will back him. And, this forgettable performance aside, Chuck Hagel will be the next Secretary of Defense.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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