Defense secretary nominee Chuck Hagel apparently could not get his home-state senators (as is the tradition) to introduce him to the Senate Armed Services Committee, so instead two former senators, Republican John Warner of Virginia and Democrat Sam Nunn of Georgia will do the honors today. (Probably a good idea to get two guys who have been out of the loop for a number of years.) Both were respected on national security once upon a time, but the absence of any current Senate escorts is, well, telling.
There is unlikely to be fireworks today, only because senators are notoriously bad at asking questions. (Great at bloviating but not so good on following a line of questions.) And witnesses coached and re-coached by the White House (someone should ask Hagel how many hours he spent and who helped him as well as who drafted the confirmation conversion letters) can draw the answers out and ignore questions. The country would be better served if it were otherwise, but expectations should not be high for any Perry Mason moments. Democrats of course want this to be over as soon as possible so they can stop pretending to believe Hagel’s serial flip-flops and ignoring his record of foreign policy extremism and bad judgment.
There are a couple of Democrats, Sens. Ben Cardin of Maryland and Bob Menendez of New Jersey, who have valiantly resisted White House entreaties to crumble before the hearing, toss their serious foreign-policy bona fides aside and play dumb like their colleagues. In the end, barring a debacle at the hearing (possible but unlikely), some say that they too will crumble. Perhaps, but maybe they resent being used by the White House as blocking backs for someone hostile to nearly every foreign-policy position they hold and lacking in executive experience. It is possible that these two, unlike Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), don’t care about earning brownie points with the White House and instead want to be seen as serious lawmakers.
The other question is whether some Republicans will throw their lot in with the White House. There are by my count as of now about 35 no votes. The majority of the remainder are tentatively leaning against Hagel, but a couple are at this point likely to support him. That is before the hearing, and that is why it remains an important event. Democrats have already sold their souls on this one, but Republicans will be looking at the hearing and asking the advice of their colleagues on the committee. Are his confirmation conversions a farce? Is he going to be able to propound the president’s stated policies and have credibility with friends and foes, especially in the Middle East? Is his just another sign of the president’s in-your-face approach to Congress and his second term? Does he have the temperament and executive ability for this enormous job?
At this juncture a really bad performance by Hagel might shake loose a few contentious Democrats. That is, I will grant you, not the most probable outcome. An official with a pro-Israel organization whose members are mostly Democrats told me, “I wish it were otherwise. But that’s the way it is.”
The Democratic Party in the Obama era is not the Democratic Party of old when it comes to Israel. When convenient, Democrats will still support the Jewish state (especially around election time), but when a president remarkably hostile to our democratic ally comes along, partisan loyalty too often replaces principle. Maybe this will be the exception. Republicans are showing themselves to be unflagging supporters of a strong U.S.-Israeli relationship, entirely intolerant of anti-Semitic verbiage, protective of our defense funding and devoted to preventing a nuclear-armed Iran.
Clarity is good in a democracy because with it comes accountability to the voters. And, as we have noted before, hypocrisy (this time on dropping an assortment of Hagel’s problematic views) is the homage vice pays to virtue. You just can’t believe and say the things Hagel used to before his nomination and expect to get into a responsible national security position. The fact that so many Democrats would willingly play along with the Hagel deception tells us nothing about Hagel but a lot about the quality of today’s Senate. And most telling, the Hagel nomination tells you all you need to know about the president’s sympathies.