Normally, the Senate's role in a presidential appointment involves a testing of the waters, an airing of public disputes over policy, and then an uneventful vote to confirm the nominee. Presidents usually get a great deal of leeway in choosing their appointments, especially Cabinet officers.
Cabinet and sub-Cabinet officials serve at the pleasure of the president and are replaced on a regular basis. Presidents who win elections are entitled to their choice of advisers. The only solid rationales for denying confirmation are corruption, abuses of power, and/or incompetence. Senate Republicans face a test in an upcoming confirmation vote that arguably involves the latter. Lacking the majority, they will need to rely on filibusters to stop confirmation in both cases, which could ignite another round of partisan warfare and signal more gridlock in the 113th Congress.
Interestingly, the fight centers on a fellow Republican. Barack Obama chose Chuck Hagel to run the Department of Defense, replacing the successful Leon Panetta. Ostensibly, Obama chose Hagel to give a bipartisan tilt, but that hasn't been the impression left with Senate Republicans, with whom Hagel had contentious relationships during his two terms in the upper chamber. Republicans see Hagel as a cover for Obama's desire to reduce military spending and decrease the reach of American power, at least through the traditional missions of the armed forces.
That might have made for an interesting confirmation fight in and of itself. Instead, Hagel nearly self-destructed in a bizarre, rambling hearing that had even Democrats wondering what had happened. Despite having gone through a mock hearing with White House advisers, Hagel seemed lost and confused for much of the actual questioning on Capitol Hill. Hagel tangled first with John McCain over a sore subject — the surge in Iraq, which Hagel vocally opposed in 2006 and 2007, and which eventually succeeded in stabilizing central Iraq. The outcome of that argument largely rests on which position one takes today on the surge, but that's not true of other Hagel stumbles.
For instance, the panel pressed Hagel for his position on Iran. In the past, Hagel has opposed both sanctions and the discussion of a military option to keep Iran from building a nuclear weapon. But before the Senate panel, Hagel announced that he believed in the policy of "containment," and that the government of Iran is "elected" and "legitimate." That came as news to everyone, since that's neither the policy of the Republicans nor of the Democrats. After an aide passed him a note, Hagel then retracted that statement and added that he had no position on containment. An exasperated Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chair of the Armed Services Committee, informed him that the U.S. in fact does have a policy on containment — we oppose it.
Finally, when challenged on his lack of experience at the Pentagon and unfamiliarity with issues of weapons systems, technology, and other areas, Hagel told the panel that he would learn as he goes. "There are a lot of things I don't know about," Hagel stated. "If confirmed, I intend to know a lot more than I do." One might ask why Obama didn't appoint someone to run Defense who already knows a lot more than Hagel does, or why Hagel hasn't bothered to learn it before appearing at his own confirmation hearing.
"Disappointed," said… the White House. "Unimpressive and unprepared," said… Obama adviser Robert Gibbs. And these were the good reviews. Defenders of Hagel and Obama's appointment of him attacked Republicans more than they defended Hagel, but none addressed the real issue, which is that Hagel was not only unprepared for the hearing, but also unprepared for the job, as Politico pointed out the morning of the hearing.
Democrats could still push Hagel to confirmation — if he makes it to a floor vote in the Senate. Harry Reid has a 10-vote majority, and if no Democrats defect, Hagel would coast to confirmation. However, Republicans could filibuster the floor vote. That would normally open the Republican caucus to charges of hyper-partisanship, but Hagel's awful performance and clear lack of interest in preparation for the hearing opens this as a possibility. Some Cabinet positions can withstand ineptitude or inexperience, but the Department of Defense is not one of them. It's the largest, most complicated organization in the federal government, and the consequences of incompetence are impossible to overstate.
And a filibuster might not be a bad outcome for Obama, either. If Republicans unite in opposition to a confirmation vote, the White House will waste no time in blaming Republicans and casting them as villains attacking a combat veteran. However, it will also give Obama a reason to back away from Hagel's now-demonstrable incompetence and make a new selection for secretary of defense. The most likely candidate, Michelle Flournoy, has plenty of experience at the Pentagon, serving as undersecretary of defense for the first three years of Obama's first term. She spent several years at the Pentagon in Bill Clinton's administration, with repeated citations of excellence for her work. Flournoy would become the first female defense secretary in American history, and might alleviate some criticisms over the lack of diversity in Obama's second-term Cabinet. Plus, Flournoy would almost certainly understand the difference between "containment" and "prevention," and would probably prepare more thoroughly for a confirmation hearing, too.
As of Monday, the Republican caucus still hadn't signaled whether it would block Hagel's appointment. But one way or the other, Hagel's nomination should be withdrawn. Regardless of party affiliation, Hagel's performance last week should have everyone concerned about the future of the nation's defense. If it takes a filibuster to stop Hagel, then on this rare occasion the Senate should impose one.
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