Defense secretary nominee Chuck Hagel’s reputation fared nearly as badly on the Sunday shows as it did in his confirmation hearing. Obama administration representatives gave a perfunctory thumbs up to his nomination but refused to declare his hearing a success.
There was this embarrassing exchange on CNN’s “State of the Union”:
CANDY CROWLEY: So you all thought he seemed well prepared?
LEON PANETTA: I think — I know Chuck Hagel. And I think he’s got good experience with regards to public service. He understands the issues of the Defense Department. I think he’ll be a great secretary of defense.
Ouch. And then there was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey on “Meet the Press”:
CHUCK TODD: Are you confident … of Chuck Hagel? Have you spent a little bit of time with him? Are you guys confident you can be a part — that you guys have to have this partnership as secretary of defense, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, … whether you like each other or not, are you confident you can have a good partnership with him as you have with Secretary Panetta?
GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY: I spent some time with Senator Hagel — well, I have spent time with Senator Hagel including when he was teaching over at Georgetown on strategic issues. And in — in prep — in helping prepare him for his confirmation hearings, we had several opportunities to talk about strategy. And I found him well-prepared and very thoughtful about it.
TODD: [Were] … his answers to you better than the answers you saw there?
DEMPSEY: Well, I’m not going to grade his homework. But I will say that in my conversations with him, he was well prepared, articulate, concise …
TODD: And you’re confident that he can do the job?
DEMPSEY: I’m not going to speak about confidence. He’s — he could be my boss. And then when is the last time you saw a subordinate discuss their confidence in their potential boss? But I think he’s got great credentials. My personal contacts with him have been very positive. And if he’s confirmed, I look forward to working with him.
And those are the people sent out by the administration to defend Hagel.
Even loyal administration figures such as Robert Gibbs panned the performance (“seemed unimpressive and unprepared”).
To recap, Hagel has a problematic record. His past views (on Israel, on unilateral sanctions, on Iran, etc.) and voting record are inconsistent with his present positions and with administrative policy. He told Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) in private he’d in effect say whatever needed to be said in order to land the job. And the Democratic senators dutifully said in effect, “Don’t worry! You’ll see in the hearing!” Then the hearing comes, and he is a disaster. Not only can he not explain the administration’s positions accurately (the “elected” government of Iran is actually a military dictatorship, our policy actually is not to have conditional aid to Egypt), but he was ignorant about basic facts (the size of the budget he will be tasked with slashing). He promised to learn a lot more after he got the job. But this is not an apprenticeship, and there is no time for a learning curve.
Now the Democrats’ line is: “The hearing doesn’t matter.” Hagel’s private confirmations to Schumer and the letters written for him by his handlers melted in the glare of the hearing room lights. He was revealed to be, if not out of the mainstream, then out of his depth. (Really, are there no Democrats smarter and more capable than this nominee?)
It seems that the thing that “doesn’t matter” to the White House and to Senate Democrats is having a competent defense secretary who can go out on the world stage. By his own admission Hagel cannot be a policymaker, and by his own performance he shows himself to be incapable of being a policy promoter. So is he just to cut ribbons and go to parades? Who will actually do the defense secretary’s job?
In the round table on “Meet the Press,” New York Times columnist David Brooks, a longtime ally of the White House, suggested that Hagel should be the one to go back to the president and see if withdrawing his nomination would be the best for all concerned. (“If I were Chuck Hagel, I’d go to the president right now and I’d say, do you still have confidence in me? Do you think I can do the job?”)
Brooks is right, of course. A truly responsible nominee would understand how badly he let down the president and would relieve him of the obligation to go forward with an unqualified nominee. I suspect, however, that Hagel– whose massive ego would not permit him to admit error on the Iraq surge, his past opposition to unilateral sanctions or anything else — will have to be pushed off the stage or defeated. He isn’t going gracefully.
Despite being humiliated by Hagel (Schumer looks downright silly for having accepted private assurances from the inept nominee), Schumer and other liberal Democrats will line up behind Hagel. Embattled Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) could restore some stautre and gravitas by opposing the nominee, but is far more likely to cling to the Democrats whose protection he will need. That leaves a few red-state Democrats and Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), who would stand to assume the mantle of the chief pro-Israel Democrat and burnish his reputation for independence by voting against Hagel. But Republicans cannot and should not set expectations too high for a, if you will pardon the term, a confirmation conversion by Senate Democrats. They are foursquare in favor of the most embarrassing nominee in modern times to be put up for a top Cabinet spot.