Did Chuck Hagel blow his shot at becoming defense secretary?
President Obama's nominee to run the Pentagon had a rough day before his former Senate GOP colleagues. He probably needs five of them to win confirmation
The consensus is that former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) didn't do very well in his Senate confirmation hearing to be the next defense secretary. And few people in Washington are happier about that than Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin, one of Hagel's most tenacious critics. "It's fascinating, actually, to see a nominee of this importance do so poorly," she says. Hagel went "from awful to atrocious" on Thursday, repeatedly correcting himself, disavowing his own words, and squirming under the questioning from his former GOP colleagues. "Forgetting about his views, he does not radiate the confidence nor project the intelligence the job demands." Can Republicans stop him?
Hagel is sinking his own nomination. Will any Democrats throw up their hands and refuse to pretend he is credible and competent? Maybe. But every single Republican — any fair person not under the thumb of the White House, really — has more than enough reason to oppose and block the nomination. Hagel has proven himself to be a remarkably ill-considered pick. If the Democrats won't, Republican senators should save the president and the country from an unqualified and unsuited pick. [Washington Post]
Hagel was fine — it's the Republicans who attacked him "with the pitchfork zeal of heretic hunters" we need to worry about, says John Avlon at The Daily Beast. Hagel is "a small-government conservative" with internationalist inclinations, but his "calm recitation of consensus catechism on issues ranging from Iran to Israel to nuclear weapons didn't seem to make any impression" on his Republican interrogators. This wasn't about policy; "this was personal," payback for opposing the Iraq War and agreeing to work for the hated Obama. "Defeating Chuck Hagel's nomination — or destroying his reputation through 1,000 cuts — seems to be a priority for the GOP," and the disrespect the Nebraska Republican's former colleagues and friends heaped on him "was striking and ugly."
The Hagel inquisition was so preoccupied with partisan opposition research and repeated gotcha questions that other critically important issues — cyber-warfare; al Qaeda in North Africa; military suicides; the integration of openly gay soldiers and the new role of women in combat — did not get the attention they need and deserve, despite Hagel's best attempts. [Daily Beast]
So, what did Republicans ask Hagel about?
The obvious rejoinder from conservatives:
To be fair, "Hagel makes a poor witness for himself," says Michael Hirsh at National Journal. He has always been "deliberative and slow of speech, stubbornly stating his positions without concern as to who else joined with him in them," and that "strong, silent-type approach" clearly worked much better when he was "on the other side of the firing line, just one of a gauntlet of senators asking questions." If you looked at a transcript of the hearing rather than video, Hagel's "long pauses and agonizingly careful answers held up for the most part when it came to substance," but his failure to aggressively defend himself or believably express regret will "cost him quite a few votes." As the hearings dragged on, "Hagel appeared to lose Republican after Republican, and even a couple of Democrats, including New York's Kirsten Gillibrand, looked a little doubtful."
It's true that "you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone not blood related to Hagel who will tell you that he did extremely well at Thursday's hearing," says Chris Cillizza at The Washington Post. But his "halting, befuddled and, often, just plain bad" performance "almost certainly won't keep him from becoming the next man to lead the Pentagon."
Amid all of that sturm und drang regarding Hagel's poor performance, it's also important to remember that if history is any guide, the former Nebraska Senator is still very likely to be confirmed. The reason is simple: Democrats appear to still be on board with Hagel.... Short of Democrats peeling away en masse from Hagel, which they seem unlikely to do — as much from loyalty to President Obama as any allegiance to the former Nebraska Republican senator — the only way that he wouldn't be confirmed is if Republicans choose to block his nomination. And, historically speaking that is very rarely done. [Washington Post]
Hagel's defensive confirmation posture "isn't likely to sink his nomination — unless it was already doomed," says Jonathan Bernstein at The Washington Post. "The first part of confirmation has always been to ensure that all 55 Democrats supported Hagel," and he'd essentially done that before the hearing even started. But Republicans "almost certainly will insist on 60 votes to confirm" Hagel, so the second part of the equation is whether he can pick up five Republicans. One, Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), is already on board, and "that's a good start; Cochran, a mainstream conservative, doesn't seem to be a likely outlier."
But he'll need four more. What really matters here, then, is whether the nomination becomes a litmus test, the kind of vote that senators worry will be used against them effectively in a primary election challenge. And that won't be determined by Hagel's confirmation hearing, which will be a one-day story; it will be determined, mostly, by internal Republican politics. So far, I'm not convinced that we have enough information to assess the fate of the nomination. But I don't think we learned very much about it from the hearing today. [Washington Post]