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The Political Veteran

If he takes the presidential plunge, the world will notice him a lot more, and will study his record, too. Though a staunch anti-abortion, pro-school-prayer, pro-school-voucher conservative who voted to remove Bill Clinton from the White House, Hagel is not easily pigeonholed.

He believes in alliances and international institutions. He says the neoconservatives in the Bush administration have taken the country into a serious mess in Iraq while damaging our historic alliances. He has repeatedly criticized the management of the war in Iraq (which he voted to authorize), particularly the administration's unsuccessful efforts to spend the money Congress appropriated for rebuilding projects. At a Senate hearing this fall he said of the flummoxed rebuilding effort: "It's beyond pitiful, it's beyond embarrassing. It is now in the zone of dangerous." John Kerry liked this quotation so much he used it in one of the debates with President Bush.

(Ted Kirk For The Washington Post)

When Hagel was questioned in Nebraska last month about his loyalty to Bush, he invariably noted that he supported the president on "96 to 98 percent" of Senate votes. But the few votes he cast against Bush included the president's three biggest domestic initiatives: the 2002 farm bill, the No Child Left Behind education bill, and the reform of Medicare including creation of a drug benefit to begin in 2006. He calls the Medicare bill "a sham and a rip-off for nearly everybody . . . and actually, it's going to make our problems worse."

In other words, Hagel is no Bush acolyte. He is not a member of the most conservative factions of the GOP, and very firmly not an adherent of the "Bush doctrine" justifying unilateral and preemptive military action.

Hagel's biography won't satisfy some elements of today's Republican Party. He is not a born-again Christian, though he is a regular churchgoer, attending St. John's Episcopal Church on Lafayette Square, a choice he and Lilibet (a former staff assistant on Capitol Hill) made to reconcile her Baptist faith and his Catholicism. He was divorced after a brief, childless first marriage to Patricia Lloyd, now a development officer at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies.

Hagel is deeply partisan, but he has made friends across the aisle in the Senate -- Delaware's Joe Biden has become a pal, for one -- and says he believes in bipartisan government. He refused to join Republican colleagues in demonizing Kerry during the recent campaign: "I like him. He's smart, he's tough, he's capable. I don't agree with him on a lot of things [though] I am closer to him on foreign policy questions. . . . He's certainly qualified to be president."

And Hagel is far from politically correct in speaking about the Republican record of recent times. "Look at the deficits that have been run up. . . . And Republicans have been in charge. . . . We've been adrift in a sea of incompetence, with no fiscal responsibility," he told a group of small businessmen in Lincoln in October. The country is in trouble, he continued, because of "a lack of leadership, a lack of vision . . . and a lack of leveling with the American people."

Hagel promises that if he runs for president, he will level. "I happen to believe that by 2008, this country is going to be ready for some people to talk very clearly, plainly -- not frighten them, not demagogue them, but say it straight, say it honest," he says in the interview on the plane.

What about the Republican aversion to increasing government revenues -- could he run for president on a pledge never to raise taxes? We have to face the facts, Hagel replies. We'll need more money to solve the impending crisis of our major entitlement programs, particularly Social Security and Medicare. Pretending otherwise would be "dishonest."

"At some point somebody's going to ask you in a debate: 'Well, senator, will you pledge if you're elected president never to raise taxes?' I couldn't take that pledge. It would be irresponsible. That may cost me the nomination."

How realistic is it to expect today's Republican Party to respond to that sort of bluntness? Hagel answers philosophically: "I've been around politics . . . long enough to know that no one can accurately predict what the world will look like two years hence. . . . But I do know this: If one is serious about offering himself as a presidential candidate in four years, you are going to have to be suited up and down on the field and in the game."

As part of his preparations, Hagel will introduce two pieces of legislation in the Senate early next year that will advertise his readiness to deal with big issues. One will be his plan to create private Social Security accounts while preserving traditional benefits for those already on Social Security or about to be. The other will be a bill to control greenhouse gas emissions, an alternative to the Kyoto Treaty that the United States has refused to join. Hagel is flying to London next month to discuss his ideas on global warming with Prime Minister Tony Blair.

The big question, Hagel says when asked in public about the presidency, is "what the Republican Party may be looking for in 2008." He says his party has "lost its moorings," and he wants to help redefine its mission. That would be part of his run for the presidency.

By implication, Hagel is talking about running the way John McCain did in 2000, as an outsider who may not start with the support of many GOP grandees, and whose main hope is to win so many votes in Republican primaries that he cannot be resisted. Of course McCain (whom Hagel strongly supported in 2000) may be a contender next time himself.

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