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Chuck Schumer’s Hagel problem

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There probably is no more important senator on the Chuck Hagel nomination than Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). Hagel could still lose even if Schumer supports him (either because of a GOP filibuster or near-unanimous disapproval from Republicans and a few breakaway Democrats up for reelection in 2014). However, there is no way, given Schumer’s prominence on Israel issues and the pressure his decision would generate on Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and other pro-Israel Democrats, that Hagel could survive if Schumer opposed him.

So far Schumer has been entirely, eerily noncommittal, suggesting that he was either not consulted or that his consultation was ignored by the White House. The most disturbing headline Tuesday for the pro-Hagel team (aside from praise for Hagel from the Chinese government and the mullahs in Iran) was this: “Schumer Won’t Predict if Hagel Will Be Confirmed.” Not only did Schumer refuse to say how he thought things would turn out (“It’s too early to tell”), but he also revealed only that he’s been reading what Hagel has said (red alert!). He vowed: “I’ll study it more. But before I make any decision I’m going to give him a full hearing.”

Schumer and Gillibrand both sit on the Armed Services Committee that will hold the confirmation hearing. It will be interesting to see if Schumer lets the Republicans do the heavy lifting or if he grills Hagel himself.

Schumer fancies himself as a great defender of Israel and extra tough on Iran. He repeats ad nauseam that his name derives from the Hebrew word “shomer” (guard). He tells groups:  “We need to be guardians of America and its strongest ally – Israel.” So how will it look and what happens to Schumer’s image as the great guardian of the U.S.-Israel relationship if he votes to confirm Hagel, who has spent a career outside the mainstream bipartisan consensus that supports the Jewish state? Hasn’t Hagel made quite clear he does not see the specialness of the U.S.-Israel relationship?

Hagel will no doubt fill the hearing room with paeans to Israel, but is Schumer, to borrow a phrase, supposed to suspend disbelief to confirm a man who has so consistently opposed sanctions against Iran, refused rhetorical support of Israel and complained that we shouldn’t let our relationship with Israel adversely affect our standing with Muslim countries? (Newsflash: Many Muslim countries want Israel to vanish.)

Schumer has constituents and donors to worry about, and can’t risk being to the left of (i.e. less supportive of Israel) than Democratic senators who are already voicing concerns (e.g. Sens. Ben Cardin, Gillibrand). Moreover, as Stephen Hayes points out, there are many Democratic senators who have good reason to vote against Hagel:

Virginia Democrat Tim Kaine isn’t up for reelection for six years. But he’s from a state with a huge military population and he now sits on the Armed Service Committee. Will he support a nominee who is being sold as the man to preside over “huge cuts” to the military? And what about Joe Donnelly, a Democrat from Indiana? Like Kaine, he’s not up for six years, but with a seat on the Armed Services Committee and representing a red state like Indiana, a vote for “huge cuts” at the Pentagon won’t be an easy one. Kay Hagan, a Democrat on Armed Services, hails from North Carolina. She’s up in 2014. Does she want to run for reelection defending her vote for “huge cuts” to the Pentagon? Mark Pryor, from Arkansas, isn’t on Armed Services but is up in 2014. How would Arkansas voters feel about “huge cuts” to the Pentagon?


What about Alaska’s Mark Begich? North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp? Virginia’s Mark Warner? Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu? Joe Manchin from West Virginia? And Jon Tester from Montana?

Schumer would not want to cede leadership on Israel, and the Middle East more generally, to others, thereby leaving his “post” as guardian of the U.S.-Israel relationship.

Remember that most of the other 54 Democratic senators wake each morning seeing a future president in the mirror, and they know all too well how risky it will be to cast a vote for a figure like Hagel. Yes, the pressure from the White House will be intense, but the vote on Hagel (like the vote on the Iraq war or on Supreme Court judges) may be one of the most important of their careers. In other words, Schumer faces the very real possibility that other Democrats may break against Hagel, seizing the limelight and his sentry post.