Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s hint that Republicans are considering the possibility of filibustering former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel’s nomination to be the next Secretary of Defense sent the political world into a tizzy over the past 24 hours.
Such a move would be both historic — no presidential Cabinet nominee has ever been filibustered — and politically dumb.
McConnell’s stated reason for weighing a filibuster against Hagel is that “he did not do a very good job before the Armed Services committee.” That is, without question, true. As we wrote at the time, Hagel was halting, defensive and just bad during his confirmation hearings. (Even former Obama White House press secretary Robert Gibbs acknowledged as much over the weekend.) All of the issues — Iran, Israel etc. — Hagel had coming into the hearing, he had when he left.
But, there’s a big difference between performing badly in a hearing and disqualifying yourself in a hearing. Hagel did the former, not the latter. People like Arizona Sen. John McCain and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham may not have liked what they heard from Hagel in the confirmation hearing but their former colleague was very careful to break no new policy ground or create any new lines of attack against him.
That’s important, politically speaking. The general rule with Cabinet nominations is that if the person is qualified for the office, they get confirmed — regardless of the policy differences between them and the opposing party. The president won the election and, therefore, gets to put who he wants into office, the thinking goes. And so, if you don’t think Hagel should be Secretary of Defense, you vote against him. You don’t filibuster him.
But, for Republican Senators the argument against filibustering Hagel is even more simple than that. The party is simply not in a place — brand-wise — to win a showdown with President Obama over anything at the moment. (The GOP’s decision to give way on the fiscal cliff and debt ceiling in recent weeks are evidence of that fact.)
That goes double when it comes to a fight over the confirmation of Hagel. Remember that the average person didn’t watch one second of Hagel’s marathon hearing and may not have even read or watched any of the coverage of it. They have no sense then about how he did — and, frankly, they almost certainly don’t care. (Confirmation hearings are not the sort of thing that move the needle with the general public.)
The reality is that if Republicans decide to filibuster Hagel, most people will look at his resume — decorated Vietnam veteran, successful businessman, U.S. Senator — and wonder what the fuss is all about. And that’s bad for GOPers.
There’s just no way that Republicans want what would come their way if they decided to filibuster Hagel. Politics is about picking your fights — and usually picking ones you can win. This isn’t one for Senate Republicans.