Hagel as Hamlet -- or the Third Man?

(By Andrew Councill -- Bloomberg News)
By Dana Milbank
Thursday, May 17, 2007

If Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel shows any more leg about an independent presidential candidacy, he risks a citation for indecent exposure.

On CBS's "Face the Nation" on Sunday, he teased about joining a third-party ticket with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg: "It's a great country to think about a New York boy and a Nebraska boy to be teamed up leading this nation."

And there the antiwar Nebraska boy was yesterday, dipping his fringe loafer again into a possible independent candidacy as he addressed a lunch gathering of the Center for National Policy near Union Station.

"You've got in one sense the perfect storm brewing here that is going to blow into next year where I think anything is possible, and I really do believe that," Hagel said when quizzed about his interest in a third-party run. "I think the legitimacy of an independent candidacy is a real possibility."

As if it were necessary, Hagel reminded his audience that his thoughts on Iraq and other big issues "don't necessarily coincide with where my party is," then teased anew: "I will make a decision on my political future later in the summer."

It's been two months since Hagel held a bizarre news conference on his "political future," at which he announced that he had nothing to announce. Whatever his true intentions, his words yesterday pointed unmistakably toward an independent presidential run: too concerned to retire ("everywhere you look, we have huge problems"), too independent to remain Republican ("neither party is seen as an answer") and too disgusted with Congress ("this nonsense that we're consumed with here") to seek reelection next year.

As it happens, nonsense was on prominent display at both ends of the Capitol yesterday. The day began with a hearing of a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee investigating a singular case of government dysfunction: how the administration had allowed al-Hurra, a U.S.-funded Middle Eastern television station, to promote Holocaust deniers and anti-Israel campaigns. "Why are American taxpayer dollars used to spread the hate, lies and propaganda of these nuts, when our goal was to counter them?" asked the subcommittee chairman, Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.).

Over in the Senate, lawmakers had a series of votes about Iraq that were, by their very design, intended to achieve nothing. The votes had been tacked on to a section of the Water Resources Development Act that, by agreement between Democrats and Republicans, would itself be struck from the legislation. Not that it mattered anyway: A vote for an immediate withdrawal from Iraq fell 31 votes short.

Senators raced to the television gallery to spin the votes, causing news-conference gridlock as lawmakers waited their turn outside the TV studio. First came Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) to talk about the "meaningless gesture" he had just witnessed on the floor. Next came a group of Democrats including Sen. Russ Feingold (Wis.), who announced, even though his withdrawal plan got only 29 votes, "I am so heartened." Finally came the Republican rebuttal, where Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (Tex.) denounced "political posturing in the middle of a water bill."

Perhaps Hutchison had seen Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) deliver an apparent snub to her rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, Barack Obama (Ill.), by looking away as he approached her on the Senate floor. On the Republican side, John McCain (Ariz.) did his posturing elsewhere; the presidential candidate skipped the votes entirely, as he has most votes over the past month.

The Senate was in need of some adult behavior -- and Hagel provided it in his lunchtime speech, where 100 people heard him speak for 40 minutes without notes. The early start to the presidential campaign "has paralyzed, locked down our ability to govern," he complained. "We must find some bipartisan consensus on Iraq and on the future, our security, and we can't wait for two years, a year and a half, for the next president to take office."

Hagel had greater scorn for Bush, attributing to him a "foolish" national security policy, "chaos now in Iraq" and "the potential of a sectarian war in the Middle East."

This led, logically, to a question about Hagel's third-party intentions -- and an immediate admission that he "might have an interest in moving in a little different direction."

"As you look at the early poll numbers on any candidates in the two major parties, no one has been breaking out of a pattern," the budding independent argued. "Neither party is seen as an answer or as a glittering new dimension to lead this country."

He mentioned the difficulty historically faced by independent candidates, but quickly added: "Does that mean it couldn't be done? No, not at all."

Unbidden, Hagel announced he is "not at all concerned" about his family tolerating a presidential run. And he sounded skeptical that there would be "an opening for me" in the Republican primaries. "Those are uncontrollables I can't determine," the senator said. "I am who I am, I've said what I believe, and this is who I am."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company