Reports suggest that the White House on Monday will name controversial former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) as the nominee for secretary of Defense, setting up what may turn out to be the nastiest confirmation battle of the Obama presidency.
One executive from a pro-Israel group said to me, “There is only one reason [for the nomination]: The president likes him and feels comfortable with him.” Indeed, it is becoming hard to deny that Hagel’s anti-Israel rhetoric and views and antipathy toward defense spending and sanctions on Iran are positives with this president, not demerits. A leading Democrat with a pro-Israel organization told me, “If the rumors are true and despite Hagel’s offensive record — from his extreme anti-choice actions, being pro-high capacity magazines and against universal background checks and his slurs again minority groups like gays and Jews to his views on Iran and terrorist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas — President Obama wants to embrace Hagel, it is going to be very awkward for Democrats in the Senate. ” He seemed baffled by the choice: “Given the fact that his staff has said it will be ‘a tough confirmation,’ the GOP is lining up against [it], and there are highly capable alternatives, the choice would be virtually inexplicable, unless the President either deep down shares Hagel’s views or doesn’t care about anyone in his party but himself.”
Indeed, it is Democrats on Capitol Hill who seem glum and pro-Israel critics of the president who are nearly giddy with anticipation. Chuck Todd is reporting that as many as ten Democrats may vote against Hagel, making his confirmation a shaky proposition at best.
One Capitol Hill Democrat put it to me this way: “Why not Sen. Inhofe (R-Okla.) to replace Lisa Jackson at EPA? Hey, both Inhofe and Hagel are Republican. Both disagree on major policy issues with the president. And both have pissed off big Democratic constituencies.” Other Democrats seem fretful as well. A longtime pro-Israel activist bemoaned that “Hagel is wrong on everything” and that at some point Democratic senators from states like New Jersey and New York will have to say “enough.” The activist expressed consternation that Obama had folded his tent on a possible Susan Rice nomination but was apparently going to bat for a Republican who had offended gays and Jews. Other Democratic commentators and lawmakers have publicly voiced doubts about a Hagel nomination or tried to avoid the topic entirely.
For the very reason that Democrats are glum, conservative critics and a number of pro-Israel activists seem anxious to have the fight. In their eyes, the Hagel nomination does not make political sense for the president (as evidenced by lukewarm endorsements and silence from Senate Dems), is no longer justified as a bipartisan move (in fact it will inflame partisan passions) and cannot be defended as selection of the most qualified candidate. Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, would have preferred to head off a fight. But now he told me his group and others will embrace the challenge: “There will be no more important battle for the pro-Israel community, in the past few decades, then the one to oppose the nomination of Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense. As the Washington Post editorialized, Hagel’s policy positions are wrong in these very dangerous times and is ‘not the right choice’. Abe Foxman of the ADL has said that past comments by Hagel ‘border on anti-Semitism.'” Brooks continued that it is the Democrats who will be in the hot seat: “If President Obama chooses to move forward with Hagel in light these and many other concerns he can expect a very difficult and bruising nomination battle. For the Senate Dems, this puts them in a very difficult spot: will they stand with the pro-Israel community in opposing Hagel or will they stand with President Obama? A Hagel nomination will cause a huge spike in Tums sales in the Democratic caucus and there is no question the pro-Israel community will look very closely at the choice these Democratic Senators make- especially those running in 2014.”
Conservative critics of the president’s Israel policy have long bemoaned the absence of Democratic pushback when the president’s positions and rhetoric regarding Israel have been at their worst. In their eyes, Democratic lawmakers in this fight will have a choice: Be revealed to be fair weather friends of the U.S.-Israel relationship (and insincere about integrating gays into the military) or stand up to the president. Right Turn has learned that a concerted public campaign including ads, constituent lobbying and public letters against Hagel is being prepared if he in fact is named.Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) will be prime targets of the anti-Hagel effort.
In some sense this is a win-win for the right. If Hagel is nominated and a heated confirmation hearing ensues, the president will be forced to defend Hagel’s comments insinuating American Jews are guilty of dual loyalty (“The Jewish Lobby” and “I’m not the Senator from Israel” are some of Hagel’s more memorable code words). Whether Hagel gets confirmed or not becomes irrelevant to those wanting a teachable moment about the president and his priorities. As one pro-Israel activist resigned to a Hagel nomination put it, ” It should be a clarifying moment.”