Rachel Maddow, following up on Buzzfeed's Andrew Kaczynski, slammed Chuck Hagel last night for his disturbing record on abortion, rape, and LGBT rights in the military. She argued that that record—which includes repeatedly voting to limit access to abortion for female troops stationed abroad and stating that exceptions to allow abortions in cases of rape or incest aren't necessary—should serve as a red flag if not as a dealbreaker to his appointment as Secretary of Defense.
What’s interesting is that Maddow is making this case despite the fact that leading reproductive rights groups, including NARAL Pro-Choice America and Planned Parenthood, have declined to oppose the Hagel nomination. Why are progressives standing down? "President Obama's pro-choice views are strong and well-known, and we believe Mr. Hagel would follow them,” explained Donna Crane, policy director at NARAL Pro-Choice America.
Crane is right, of course: If Hagel gets the Pentagon post, there is every reason to believe he would adhere to President Obama’s pro-choice policies, and zero reason to believe he would prove insubordinate—his former views on Don’t Ask Don’t Tell notwithstanding. But that doesn’t make Maddow’s case any less convincing. Here’s why.
While it seems clear that Hagel would carry out his boss’s orders, mere compliance with existing policies is not enough. That’s because many of those policies, still sorely in need of amendment, are the subjects of ongoing battles. As Maddow points out, access to abortion is “a live policy issue being debated and changed as a matter of policy right now.” Just days ago, Obama signed a defense bill ensuring that female service members who are raped will have access to abortions covered by military health insurance. “That is a change of policy,” Maddow emphasizes. “That is brand new.” Because it’s now an existing policy, Hagel will have to follow it. But there are still a host of other women’s rights and LGBT rights issues facing the military that are not yet appropriately dealt with by existing policy and that will desperately need to be addressed in the coming years.
By way of example, Maddow notes:
There’s all sorts of very live, very sensitive, very contested policy decisions that have to be made about how openly gay service members are going to be allowed to serve—and specifically how their family members are or are not going to be recognized by a Defense Department that recognizes the family members of straight service members.
It may very well be Chuck Hagel deciding the very sensitive issue of whether a gay service member’s family gets this kind of equal treatment that he or she would never have had before.
For this reason, progressives ought to call not just for someone who can be counted on to sit pretty and adhere to Obama’s existing policies, but for someone who can be counted on to champion the interests of women and LGBT service members as these sensitive, unresolved issues take center stage.
Outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was just such a person. He made it a personal priority to combat rape and sexual assault in the military, saying, “This is an issue that I as Secretary of Defense am committed to making sure we confront.” That’s the same standard to which the next Defense Secretary should be held.
Of course, there’ll be plenty of room in confirmation hearings for Hagel to establish that he has every intention of meeting that standard. But the deck will be stacked against him there: Given his record, he’ll have to work doubly hard to show that his views have actually changed. Though some, like the Human Rights Campaign, have been happy to accept Hagel’s turnaround on LGBT rights at face value, others, including Michelangelo Signorile and gay Rep. Barney Frank, have questioned his sincerity and accused him of political opportunism.
If this latter view seems unduly cynical, it is still certainly understandable: After all, when we’re talking about realities as serious as, say, the fact that an estimated 19,000 women are sexually assaulted every year in the U.S. military, it’s hard to just take a politician at his word when he says he’s recanted.
Hard—but not impossible. Hagel could very well make a convincing case in confirmation hearings, and we should be open to the possibility of being convinced. That mounting such a case will likely prove challenging for Hagel is precisely what will make the upcoming hearings so interesting. As Maddow quips at the end of her segment, “I’m telling you, these confirmation hearings are going to be ah-mazing.”