nly a week ago, the news media was confidently reporting that President Obama was planning to nominate former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) to replace Leon Panetta as defense secretary. Now, "besieged by criticism from right and left, and considerable skepticism from his former Senate colleagues," says Michael Hirsh at National Journal, "Hagel appears to be following the path of Susan Rice as a trial-balloon nominee who finds himself quickly losing altitude in Washington." As with Rice, President Obama's reported first pick for secretary of state who withdrew her name from consideration amid staunch opposition from some key Republicans, the White House is "now signaling that it may soon puncture Hagel's hopes," too. Just as Rice's exit opened the door for Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) at state, Hagel's waning fortunes could be good news for Michele Flournoy, an under defense secretary in Obama's first term, or Ashton Carter, the current deputy defense secretary.
Most of the conservative criticism of Hagel has been over whether he's a strong enough supporter of Israel — he once used the phrase "the Jewish lobby" — and Tough enough on Iran. (From the left, he's facing heat over calling a Bill Clinton ambassador nominee, James Hormel, "openly aggressively gay" in 1998.) But Hagel "is also paying, in part, for his bluntness and bravery in advocating unpopular positions during his 12 years in the Senate," says National Journal's Hirsh, including his "gutsy and prescient stand against his own party and President George W. Bush in the run-up to the Iraq invasion — and his criticism of the war's management afterwards."
It's worth noting, says John Hinderaker at Power Line, that "Hagel was not sufficiently 'gutsy' or 'prescient' to vote against invading Iraq" — and that he wouldn't be on Obama's radar if he hadn't opposed the war. But in the end, his opposition to the Iraq War isn't the GOP's main problem with Hagel. "It's that his positions on key issues such as Iran, Israel, sequestration, and gay rights fall, in the words of Lindsey Graham, 'out of the mainstream' and, in some cases, 'well to the left of the president.'"
Graham isn't alone, says Howard Kurtz at Daily Download. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the other key leader of the anti-Rice coalition, suggested that fellow Vietnam vet Hagel isn't a real Republican, and an unidentified GOP senator told Politico that the Nebraska Republican is "prickly." Outgoing Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) — the third "amigo" of Graham and McCain — said on Sunday that Hagel would face a "a very tough confirmation process." It seems almost "quaint now," says Kurtz, but "there was a time when the Senate delivered its advice and consent for Senate nominees," using confirmation hearings to air their misgivings. Now "we have a full-fledged war over Chuck Hagel that is taking place entirely in the media," and "if the artillery shelling gets too heavy, he will go the way of Rice — without so much as a nomination, let alone a vote."
"Comically, the [GOP] campaign to discredit Hagel, in an attempt to create a constant drumbeat of scandal or scandal-esque news, is casting him as... a Republican," says Jonathan Chait at New York. Apparently the neoconservative attack of his dumb "Jewish lobby" statement and the alleged gay-bashing aren't doing the trick, so now conservatives are criticizing him for praising segregationist Republican Strom Thurmond as a "role model" on his 100th birthday. But "vintage nineties-era anti-gay bigotry and embrace of the most virulent segregation-era racists were completely standard positions for the Republican party during Hagel's Senate career," so calling those morally disqualifying "is a strange argument for conservatives to make."
The irony of this "character assassination by media narrative" from Republicans is that "the political logic of a Hagel appointment is to demonstrate bipartisan outreach by President Obama," says John Avlon at The Daily Beast. Hagel is, after all, a Republican, and plenty of Democrats "question the need for any outreach to Republicans at all after a decisive election victory." His opposition to the Iraq war is his "cardinal sin" among the GOP, even though it was "from the perspective of a small-government conservative and a highly decorated Vietnam vet, skeptical of the costs that come with unnecessary wars." If they would take a step back, Hagel is "a thoughtful patriot squarely in the mainstream of American foreign policy," and he deserves a proper confirmation hearing in front of his former colleagues.
In the surreal half-light of a trial-balloon nomination, it is difficult for an individual to come to his own defense. Statements are taken out of context, and facts offered up in isolation to present a picture of someone as a quasi-monster, disfigured beyond recognition even to those who know him. The antidote is available with a little effort — ditch the well-funded opposition research being fed to partisan pundits and instead take a look at what Hagel has written about his own beliefs... Hagel's inherent fiscal conservatism, his Ike-like focus on curbing waste and abuse in the defense budget, is uniquely suited to the challenges of our times... The questions that remain can be clarified in a Senate confirmation hearing, but the Obama administration should not allow itself to be intimidated from following through on what would be an excellent addition to a second-term cabinet that could revive the idea that "partisanship ought to end at the water's edge."
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- If a nuclear bomb exploded in downtown Washington, what should you do?
- 31 TV shows to watch in 2014
- What would a U.S.-Russia war look like?
- There's a number of reasons the grammar of this headline could infuriate you
- How to be more satisfied with your life, according to science
- He said he was leaving. She ignored him.
- The Warren Buffett formula: How you can get smarter
- 7 ways to quickly become a master at anything
- Today in history: The birth of the federal income tax
- The contentious policy at the heart of Cliven Bundy's armed standoff with the government
Subscribe to the Week