When a Democratic insider and top adviser to President Obama like Stephanie Cutter laughs on the Sunday shows at the prospect of defending Chuck Hagel, you know things are not going well. She essentially said that the disastrous hearing doesn’t matter. (Hmm, I thought that Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said it was all that mattered.) She giggled that those meanie senators were just too hard on good ol’ Chuck. (Nicole Wallace cracked, “And I love that Stephanie Cutter has to defend Senator Hagel. I just — and Jay Carney, who was a White House — a correspondent during the Bush years covering Senator Hagel. It makes me so happy. This is my karma.”)
The ranking member on the Senate Armed Service Committee Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) on Sunday vowed to filibuster Hagel.
Elsewhere Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) on Fox News Sunday gave a thumbs down (“I have very grave concerns on his nomination”) but expressed skepticism over filibuster. “I think we need some more information on questions that he hasn’t answered. But — and I hope those questions get answered but I don’t — we’ve never filibustered a presidential Cabinet appointee and I don’t think we should start here.”
That said, it is precisely the lack of information that had Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Rex.) up in arms. In addition, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) raised the potential for delay during the week: “I don’t think he’s done anything unethical. He got paid to speak in front of groups; that’s a common practice around here. I want to know who did he speak in front of, what did he say, and where did the money come from?”
Then on Sunday Graham vowed, “I don’t think we should allow [John] Brennan to go forward for the CIA directorship, Hagel to be confirmed to secretary of defense until the White House gives us an accounting. Did the president ever pick up the phone and call anyone in the Libyan government to help these folks? What did the president do?”
The question remains: Why with the threat of sequester hanging over the Defense Department, a new initiative to integrate women into combat, new threats in North Africa, controversy over drone warfare and the most lethal threat to the United States and its allies (Iran) would the president want Hagel in such a sensitive spot? With each passing day a new story drops demonstrating how unserious Hagel is. (“Hagel in 2008: U.S. ‘Shouldn’t Even Be Thinking’ of Bombing Iran’“). The risk of something going terribly wrong with an unfit defense secretary at the helm should be alarming to the president and his advisers. Whom will he have to blame but himself if the next Benghazi comes along with Hagel on watch duty? As the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal put it, “Americans deserve better than a secretary of defense who merely takes orders from political aides like Valerie Jarrett. Senate Democrats should understand that in voting to confirm Mr. Hagel despite their misgivings and despite his clear lack of qualifications, they’ll share the responsibility if his tenure becomes embarrassing.” Or dangerous.
It is very likely that what happened with the nomination is that Obama decided he wanted a pal, someone who reflects his world view and who had an “R” by his name. So any serious efforts to vet Hagel were pushed off to the side and he was either under-prepared or refused to prepare for the hearing. The result is a much worse nominee than the White House thought it had, someone who reflects poorly on the president’s judgment. If so, and if the president isn’t determined to put a very dim man (that would suggest utter contempt for the Pentagon and recklessness with regard to the security of Americans), the issue becomes how to get rid of him, without appearing to be getting rid of him.
Three scenarios come to mind. With a wink and a nod, the Democrats could leave it to the Republicans to filibuster. Alternatively, a few red-state Democrats (again with a wink and nod from the White House) could join the Republicans and get 51 votes to defeat him. And finally, the process could drag out as drip by drip Hagel’s record, speeches and finances are shown to be more and more problematic. The latest is a 2008 appearance in which Hagel seems more concerned about Israel’s nukes than a nuclear-armed Iran and unduly fixated on the Jewish religion of a foreign policy expert, Aaron David Miller. (In the confirmation hearing Hagel also raised Miller’s religion.)
There are probably others tactics for dumping Hagel, unless of course the administration is serious about putting a dullard who can’t be trusted to go out in public in charge of our national security. In that case the president is gambling with the lives of Americans, his own legacy and the reputations of Democratic senators willing to rubber-stamp him.