Train Wreck

What Happened To Hagel?

02.01.13 3:00 PM ET

Some supporters have taken a different view—based on the administration's insistence that the nomination survived—but this supporter of Chuck Hagel to be the next Defense Secretary found the confirmation hearing yesterday at the Senate Armed Services Committee to be a train wreck. The former Nebraska Republican seemed caught off-guard at nearly every tough question incessantly lobbed at him by his former colleagues. One might be forgiven for thinking the only subjects discussed were Israel and Iran, as if setting policies on these two countries falls to the Defense Secretary, and not the President at whose pleasure he serves. Nevertheless, the issues are legitimate fodder for a hearing; it makes sense to inquire as to whether a nominee for a cabinet office holds views in line with their would-be boss. But that doesn't mean they should be the only subjects discussed. And, in fact, they weren't. Other attacks were lodged: Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) focused most of his two rounds of question asking on nuclear weapons disarmament and missile defense; Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) took some time to grill Hagel on opposing the so-called "surge" escalation in Iraq a half decade ago.

What was most remarkable, though, was not merely Hagel's lackluster performance in the face of these ideologically opposed Senators or those with axes to grind (as McCain clearly had), Rather, Hagel's performance distinguished between two areas of questioning: he handled himself poorly in the face of attacks—sometimes straightforward and at others the oft-derided "gotcha" questions that Republicans suddenly became fans of—while speaking eloquently, even engagingly, on substantive issues when they arose. Hagel delivered that latter sort of performance when he talked about force structure in the military; he spoke about considerations when planning things like ship-building, including fiscal ones; he talked about how he would provide care for veterans; promised equality as far as the law would take it, saying gay service members would be allowed to be married through military procedures; and discussing how to prepare for cyber-warfare.

So what happened on the attack questions? One option is that Hagel was simply unprepared, that his aides and administration handlers spent far to much time preparing him on the substantive issues a Defense Secretary would have to deal with—how to deal with various threat contingencies and personnel issues changing to meet 21st Century standards—instead of preparing the nominee for the attacks that the past 8 weeks made clear were coming. But I doubt that: neither Hagel nor the administration are political fools. More likely, I'd guess that Hagel's newly adjusted views—not grand adjustments, for the most part, though there were some of those—did not come naturally to him. This is a man not known for spewing the regular politically safe lines simply because they were politically safe. And having to ditch many of those less-safe views, I'd guess Hagel stumbled a little swearing allegiance to policies which he no doubt would carry out dutifully, but that he would not take on were he running the show. Or perhaps the administrations simply asked him to lay down, and he botched pulling the effort off with any grace.

This much, at least, is clear: the Senate is not the old boys club we often hear it described as, the place where, unlike the House, the elder statesmen and -women of the upper chamber soberly debate matters of great import. If nothing else, Ted Cruz's bizarre three rounds of questions proved that—if McCain's apparent personal gripe or Lindsey Graham's badgering on a six-year-old, already-repudiated quote hadn't done so already—by taking Hagel quotes far out of context and trying, and failing, to establish some sort of guilt by association with Ambassador Chas Freeman. 

As Brent Sasley wrote, the big winners yesterday was the far-right of the pro-Israel world. And make no mistake: this was the hard, unreconstructed neoconservative right. It was those forces that would decry any discussion whatsoever of the Israel lobby as anti-Semitic, those who brook no criticism of Israel; those who support bombing Iran now and fall only just short of outright proclaiming support for a Greater Israel that loses its claim to democracy by holding Palestibnians in permanent subjugation. I speak, of course, of Bill Kristol's Emergency Committee for Israel and its ilk: the unreconstructed neoconservatives among whom the vociferous opposition to Hagel was centered. The Republican Jewish Coalition and its backer Sheldon Adelson were at it; the right-wing Simon Wiesenthal Center; and, as the New York Times reported, an astroturf group claiming to be liberal Democrats in favor of gay rights whose ties only go back to Republicans and, most tellingly, the Emergency Committee itself. They, and a few other right-wing groups, spent an estimated million-dollars-plus on the campaign—an unprecedented effort to derail a nomination.

Kudos to Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill who—though after Hagel's lackluster performance, might be regretting it—said as much on MSNBC yesterday before the hearings:

You and I both know that if Chuck Hagel presented a threat to Israel, AIPAC would be swarming over The Hill. There would be many other organizations that would be swarming over The Hill. You wouldn't have Chuck Schumer coming out as strongly as he has for Chuck Hagel. These are in fact extreme—extreme group(s) in this advocacy area.

That's true: AIPAC, as reported by numerous journalists, is said to have sat this one out (though the group's favorite Senator and his staff have been running a campaign against Hagel). But the hard right filled the void and handed down its line to the Republican Party and, indeed, those Democrats who asked pointed questions to establish Hagel's hawkish bona fides. Judging from the commentary, it's hard to see Chuck Hagel's nomination failing unless Senate Democrats, who've been lining up, start to suddenly abandon him. But that doesn't mitigate this disaster: a proud statesman looking confused and unsure as he took body shots, instead of elucidating some version—any version—of the sober views he's put forward over his years as a foreign policy thinker.