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The Hagel litmus test

If Republicans had nervy firebrands like the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, someone would rise up to declare, “Chuck Hagel’s America is a land in which gays would be forced back in the closet and Jews would be accused of dual loyalty. Chuck Hagel’s world is one in which devastating defense cuts become a goal, not a problem; we enter direct talks with the terrorist organization Hamas; and sanctions on Iran wither.”

The Hagel nomination expected to come on Monday is so outrageous and the rationale for his nomination so weak that it becomes an easy no vote for all Republicans. Phillip Terzian aptly sums up the problems with Hagel that go beyond his extreme views: “Simply stated, there is no evidence that Chuck Hagel has the experience or temperament to master the gigantic defense establishment, or deal effectively with Congress on delicate issues. On the contrary, there is every indication that he would quickly suffocate in the details of running the Pentagon, and run afoul of his political masters in the White House.”

Unlike the Democratic Party, support for the U.S.-Israel relationship has become a positive litmus test for national office in the GOP, in large part due to the intensely pro-Israel Christian conservatives. The opposition to Hagel will be fierce. At the very least the battle will potentially suck up much of the oxygen in the Senate, put other issues like gun control on hold and threaten to become the blockbuster hearing of the Obama presidency as the Judge Robert Bork hearing was in the Reagan administration.

But this is not merely about Israel or Iran policy or defense spending. It is about the acceptability of the worst expression of anti-Semitism, the accusation of disloyalty. There is no other meaning to Hagel’s phrase “Jewish lobby.” The declaration from Hagel that he is not “the senator from Israel” (Who said he should be?) is again a direct attack on Jews’ fidelity to the United States. For decades this kind of venomous language has been gaining acceptance in Europe. But never in America. In elevating Hagel the president in a real and troubling way moves us closer to Western Europe. Indeed the most disturbing aspect of Hagel’s nomination is not his impact on policy (President Obama has and will continue to make one blunder after another), but what it says about the U.S. president’s willingness to embrace a man espousing the world’s oldest hatred.

The nomination will trigger a batch of litmus tests for various political groupings:

The 2016 GOP presidential contenders. Who will move boldly not to say he or she has “concerns” but he or she will do whatever it takes to block the nomination?

The 2016 Democratic presidential contenders. The Hagel pick becomes a burden for Vice President Biden and even for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when they are forced to defend him publicly. Why didn’t they use their good offices to urge the president take another tact? And will savvy pols like New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley take the opportunity to step into the national limelight to speak out against a nominee who questioned the loyalty of Jewish Americans?

Jewish organizations. Many like the Anti-Defamation League, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the American Jewish Committee have already spoken up and will continue to pan the choice. AIPAC almost certainly will remain quiet on the theory that to do otherwise would destroy the appearance of bipartisan support for Israel. But would it really invite senators who vote yes to be honored at its March national convention? If the organization will remain officially neutral, individual members certainly will not.

Pro-Israel Democrats. They’ve defended the president and turned out in huge numbers to reelect him. But now the president embraces a man who has accused American Jews of standing apart from their country and at odds with its best interests (“Jewish Lobby”). There is no way to countenance a nominee who speaks of Jews as a Fifth Column. If the president were to declare opposition to late-term abortions or embrace an nominee who repeatedly spoke in disparaging terms about African Americans, they would be up in arms. Do they mutely accept this outrage and  line up behind the president? (One recalls the Jewish “leaders” of the 1930’s too afraid of making a fuss to take on FDR when it came to rescuing the Jews of Europe.)

Pundits. Mainstream media pundits and cable talking heads would go ballistic if a Republican president nominated a cabinet secretary who was so overtly anti-Israel, went to battle against gays serving in government or opposed Iran sanctions. In fact they’ve done just that when the provocateur was Rick Santorum or Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.). So what do they do now? Be obedient spinners for the president or show some intellectual consistency (for once)? Will any TV interviewers grill the president, his advisers or Senate Democrats on the Hagel pick?

Senate Democrats. Senate Democrats, especially those up for re-election in 2014 (e.g.,  Minnesota’s Al Franken, Michigan’s Carl Levin, Illinois’ Dick Durbin, Virginia’s Mark Warner) will face a vote that can’t be fudged. It is a binary choice: Do they approve Hagel’s rhetoric and extremist views or not? He is far out of the mainstream of both parties on everything from Russian anti-Semitism (his 99 colleagues implored Russia to cease anti-Semitic conduct, but not he!) to Hamas to Iran sanctions.  In addition, potential Democratic candidates (e.g., Massachusetts’s Ed Markey, New Jersey’s Cory Booker) will come under tremendous heat to stand up to the president on this one.

Republican candidates. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has often felt the heat from the right for going easy on Democratic presidents’ nominees, but here is a chance for him to stand tall, engage in ferocious questioning and lead the opposition. Likewise, if Scott Brown is going to make it back to the Senate, he will likely feel compelled to weigh in.

In short the nomination will confirm suspicions the right harbors about Obama (he doesn’t like Israel, he takes Jewish voters for granted, he is weak on defense). They can with much justification claim that Obama is revealing his true preferences and instincts, which lead him to go to the mat for the most anti-Israel nominee in recent memory (in either party). Because it is such a powerful bit of evidence in the right’s favor, a Hagel nomination then forces an early decision in the second Obama term for Senate Democrats: Do they tie themselves to the fate of a lame-duck president who no longer needs to keep up the pretense of moderation or do they put some daylight between themselves and Obama?

A final note: Republicans should be circumspect about tossing around the word filibuster. In this case, the real pressure is on Senate Democrats, who ideally should be compelled to vote, not be spared by shifting the argument to one about process and denying the president an up-or-down vote. On the contrary, Republicans should insist that the hearings be exhaustive and timely. Unlike the budget, this will be a distasteful vote Senate Democrats cannot ignore. And most of all it will settle the argument about the president’s attitudes toward Israel and the American Jewish community.