Obama’s Phony Bipartisan Pick: Chuck Hagel for Defense

The president wants points for selecting ex-GOP senator Hagel as secretary of defense. Matt Latimer on Washington’s most cynical game—and why the opposition party picks never matter much.

Mannie Garcia/Bloomberg, via Getty

I’m sure we all wondered the same thing after President Obama named Chuck Hagel as the nation’s 24th secretary of defense. What in God’s name does Colin Powell have to do to get the president’s attention?

Everybody in D.C. knows that Mr. Powell would love to follow in the footsteps of his idol, George Marshall, and become the only other man to serve his country as both secretary of state and secretary of defense. The Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward—with whom Powell has one of those cozy only-in-Washington types of relationships: as both a friend and a news source—has been carrying the water on this for years. In recent months, Powell’s done all he could to catch Obama’s eye. He endorsed him again for the White House, in the process erasing himself off Republican Christmas-card lists across America. And he’s even offered Obama-friendly positions on military-related issues.

Yet the president opted instead for a relatively unknown ex-senator from a deep-red state (Nebraska) for no discernible political purpose. I knew of Chuck Hagel when I worked in the Senate. He was not exactly Mr. Congeniality, which makes one wonder how he’ll fair during his endless appearances before his former colleagues as an administration official. This was a guy so surly and grim that he made Tommy Lee Jones look like SpongeBob SquarePants.

The obvious explanation for the Hagel selection, of course, is that it is a demonstration of the newly reelected president’s commitment to bipartisanship. How we love that word—cue the trumpets, unfurl the banners, cast a golden light upon the White House. The president is reaching out! Winning the 2012 contest by a respectable yet thin margin, Obama obviously has realized that he needs to make inroads with the 47 percent of the country who voted against him. Well, if any of you believe that’s what the Hagel nomination is about, then you probably still leave cookies out for Santa Claus.

The truth is that this is yet another in a long line of hollow gestures presidents make to the other party to show Americans how bipartisan they are, when they really haven’t changed a whit. This is hardly a new phenomenon. John F. Kennedy selected Republican Douglas Dillon as secretary of the Treasury. Richard Nixon picked Texas Democrat John Connally for his Cabinet. Bill Clinton’s secretary of defense was Republican William Cohen. George W. Bush installed Democrat Norman Mineta as secretary of transportation.

Why were these appointments significant? They weren’t, except to give the president a few days of good press (if that). Not a single one of those Cabinet members did anything significant in opposition to the administration they served. Nor did they provide much meaningful help in the long term. George W. Bush did not suddenly end up looking like a middle-of-the-roader because Norm Mineta vouched for him.

Chuck Hagel won’t help Obama much either, at least not in that regard. Yes, he had a conservative voting record in the Senate. But on many defense issues, he has long been on the same page as Obama. During the Bush administration, for example, Hagel was more critical of the conduct of the Iraq War than was Hillary Clinton, calling the 2003 invasion the “biggest blunder” since Vietnam. Not exactly a quote that won hearts and minds on Fox News. In fact, Senator Hagel was never a reliable Republican vote. Like his friend John McCain, he loved positioning himself as a Senate “maverick” on all kinds of issues.

If President Obama really meant to include a different voice in his administration, then he might have appointed Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum to a post. (Think they wouldn’t take an Obama Cabinet job? Then you don’t know Washington.) Or the president might have taken the idea I expressed a couple of weeks ago in this space—and nominated Mitt Romney for the otherwise inconsequential post of secretary of commerce. (Think secretary of commerce is an important job? Then name the current one.)

Until then, I’m not going to join the pundit class in applauding the president for appointing a Republican who thinks just like he does. Come back to me when he names Michele Bachmann as secretary of health and human services. Now that would really be a reach.