President Barack Obama, it turns out, is a floater of names.
Last fall, the name of United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice was mentioned for secretary of state. We know how well that worked out. Then last month we began to hear the name of former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel for secretary of defense. This nomination is likely to end far more successfully.
Rice was torn apart by senators who wanted to use the attack on the U.S. special mission in Benghazi, Libya, to damage the president, as well as by those who wanted the job to go to a male rival they liked better. (Actually, the membership of both groups is the same: Republicans John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.) Although the Benghazi report held Rice blameless, she was gone by the time it came out.
You would think that the president, fresh from that beating, would have kept the name of his nominee for secretary of defense to himself. Not at all. Obama left Hagel twisting in the wind for weeks as opposition to his nomination grew.
This time, however, a barrage of criticism didn’t hold Obama back. Hagel’s announcement ceremony took place as scheduled yesterday. He had stuck it out, and now the full force and firepower of the White House will kick in. It’s a little odd, given how the president famously doesn’t like to fight.
Obama may think that Republicans will be less militant in defense of their foreign-policy worldview than they were in defense of millionaires. Yet so far, they have set the alarm to DEFCON 1 for Hagel’s nomination. Opposing it are hawks who resented Hagel’s votes on Iraq (he voted for the war initially, though he gave a skeptical speech, and then against the troop surge), and the pro-Israeli lobby, which resents him for a lot of reasons, especially his suggestion that the U.S. talk to Hamas.
Then there is the other side of the aisle: Because Hagel is not a Democrat, Democratic support for him is not a given. Those who count votes say there could be a dozen Democratic votes against Hagel. Democrats who don’t like him have one main question: Why is the newly re-elected president nominating a Republican for one of the top four Cabinet posts? More to the point, now that Democrats have stolen a march on Republicans on national-security issues, why is Obama turning to a Republican for defense? Obama might still be pining for bipartisanship, but congressional Democrats aren’t.
One aspect of the opposition that appears to be truly bipartisan is from gay groups. Way back in the dark ages of 1998, Hagel called James C. Hormel, who eventually became ambassador to Luxembourg, “openly aggressively gay” and criticized his nomination.
But that is a sin that Hagel has since apologized for, and Hormel has accepted the apology. “While the timing appears self-serving,” Hormel said, “the words themselves are unequivocal.”
Obama wants Hagel to help him chart a new course. The president may have needed former Defense Secretary Robert Gates and outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton -- the hawk from the previous administration and the hawk from his previous campaign -- to bolster his military cred in his first term. Now he has cred to spare, what with his drone program and the killing of Osama bin Laden.
What Obama needs to be able to do is talk back to the generals. Hagel can help him do that, and that’s why Republicans are so upset. Hagel’s flip on Iraq disturbed their comfortable certainty. Letting Army General David Petraeus have his way with the surge gave Republicans a fig leaf with which to claim victory there. It bought them time to get out without admitting defeat.
Like other politicians who have actually been to war -- such as former Democratic Senator Jim Webb and former Republican Secretary of State Colin Powell, who are fellow Vietnam veterans -- Hagel knows war is hell, not a talking point on a Sunday-morning show. He has the shrapnel to prove it. Not all veterans share his views, of course; McCain came out of Vietnam as a hawk. It will be easier for McCain to get his way on Iran without Hagel at the Pentagon standing in his way.
This is why the usual institutional deference doesn’t apply to Hagel. The cautious John Kerry, the Democratic senator Obama has nominated for secretary of state, will sail through because a Democrat doesn’t threaten the Republican foreign-policy establishment in the same way an infidel Republican does. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell predicted a lot of “tough questions” for Hagel and said he would “wait and see.” Graham said he was disposed to oppose Hagel, as did Senator Ted Cruz of Texas. Senator John Cornyn of Texas called the nomination of Hagel the “worst possible message we could send to our friend Israel.”
This doesn’t mean Hagel is doomed. Although his brow is always furrowed, he’s a low-key, likeable guy, unless he happens to endanger your shaky intellectual firmament. Senate Democrats will surely get Hagel to 51 votes, if not 60. Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island, highly regarded by both parties, is on board. Barney Frank, the openly gay former member of the House from Massachusetts who is likely to become an openly gay interim senator, was initially critical but now says he favors Hagel.
In truth, Hagel isn’t that far out of the mainstream. He has gathered his own bipartisan posse consisting of old foreign-policy hands such as Brent Scowcroft -- and why not? Hagel is a decorated war hero and a former two-term senator who served with distinction. If he hadn’t cited the influence of the “Jewish lobby” in intimidating many on Capitol Hill, his votes for full funding of Israeli aid would get more notice.
It may be hard for his fellow Republicans to see all this. They are too busy defending their mistaken hawkishness from all enemies, foreign and domestic.
(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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