President Obama wants to get credit for bipartisanship, so he picks a Republican defense secretary who will garner few if any Republican votes. He walks away from a politically loyal African American woman for secretary of state (whose nomination would open up his political liabilities) but goes forward with a white, Republican man (whose nomination puts gobs of Senate Republicans in an untenable spot). The two groups of Democrats (gays and Jews) who turned out in droves for him watch a nomination proceed with someone who had tried to exclude gays from government and accused Jews of dual loyalty.
The ironies (or hypocrisies? betrayals?) abound. The question is what happens next. Plainly, a number of Senate Democrats do not want to vote for Hagel, and their votes combined with GOP votes could defeat him on an up-or-down vote. Will Hagel make it to the confirmation hearing, to be shredded by disgusted Republicans and nervous Democrats, or like Harriet Miers, must excuses be made for him to depart before much damage is done? Politico quotes a Senate Democratic aide: “It is a strange signal for the White House to send that they are willing to fight for Hagel but not Rice. Democrats are not currently unified behind Hagel, and it will take some real work by the administration to get them there, if it’s even possible.”
Meanwhile, the politics become fascinating. On the Democratic side there is no reason at all other than pressure from the White House to support Hagel. In fact political opponents, especially in 2014 Senate races in swing and red states, will be happy to use any support for Hagel as fodder. Democrats’ other agenda items (e.g., gun control) and their fight to prevent entitlement reform will get sidetracked, at least for some time, to engage in a high-visibility fight none of them want.
On the other hand, Hagel’s nomination is energizing pro-Israel conservatives (which are an overwhelming percentage of conservatives).
Gary Bauer, a prominent Christian Zionist and influential in a number of pro-Israel groups tells me, “Of course one does not have to be pro-Israel to oppose the nomination. Hagel is a bad choice because his policies would put America more at risk. His softness on the tyrants in Iran is enough to disqualify him. Obama going forward on the nomination is sending exactly the wrong message to the mullahs. Hagel’s views on the appropriate level of defense spending in a dangerous world … [put] him way out of the mainstream. He would go past ‘fat’ in the budget to cutting the muscle we need to maintain the peace.” Then Bauer bluntly addresses the politics: “His nomination is revealing in what it tells us about Obama. I don’t see how anyone can continue to believe that the president cares about Israel. There are a number of very key senators who will have to decide between their pro-Israel stance and backing Obama. What will the New York senators do for example?”
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), among the first to sound the alarm on Hagel, put out a blistering statement suggesting that Republican votes will be hard to round up: “I will not support Chuck Hagel’s nomination to the Department of Defense. His record and past statements, particularly with respect to rogue nations like Iran, are extremely concerning to me. . . . As Iran becomes increasingly hostile and gains influence in the region, the worst possible message we could send to our friend Israel and the rest of our allies in the Middle East is Chuck Hagel.”
It was noteworthy that, while leaking the Hagel nomination over the weekend, the administration lined up no support from Senate Democrats for the Sunday shows. As a result, Republicans including Cornyn, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and freshman Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) to one degree or another bashed Hagel while prominent Democrats like Sen. Chuck Schumer (N.Y.) were entirely noncommittal. This morning both Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and potential New Jersey Senate candidate Mayor Cory Booker expressed concerns about Hagel. Offices of Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) would not provide comment despite our repeated attempts to ascertain the views of these critical Democrats. (Imagine the position they’d be in if 30 to 40 Senate Republicans voted no.) It seems they are hoping that Hagel will blow himself up before or during the hearing and they’ll be spared an actual vote when he limps off the stage. (Profiles in courage they are not.)
Late Sunday night David Axelrod finally began a defense of Hagel on Twitter, blithely declaring there was no reason for concern. But Hagel’s record is replete with anti-Israel votes and language antagonistic toward Jews. Denying there are any issues is a sure fire way to see the nomination go under.
Was the White House actually surprised by the pushback, or has it thrust Hagel out to be shredded without support from Senate Democrats? It is hard to say. But it is clear that there is no voice of restraint or common sense in the White House that could restrain the president from an inexplicably dumb political misstep. As the rest of the grown-ups depart the stage (Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner), the president will be surrounded by fewer people willing to give him honest advice and more enablers with extreme political views and rotten judgment. In other words, Hagel is a symptom of the unchecked arrogance of the president as he enters his second term.