The Coming Battle for a New SecDef
When you look at the makeup of the new Senate, there’s a good chance that Chuck Hagel will be staying on the job for quite a while.
I was relieved to hear President Obama say that Chuck Hagel has graciously agreed to stay on as secretary of defense until a new one is nominated and confirmed. In other words, Hagel may yet be in the job past January 2017 anyway.
I jest. Or do I? I don’t know, and you don’t either. Come January, we enter the brave new world of Republican control of the Senate, which means that John McCain will be running the new nominee’s confirmation hearings at the Armed Services Committee. Worthies like Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, and David Vitter will be questioning him or her, and the GOP will likely hold a numerical advantage of 14 seats to the Democrats’ 11 or 12. So really, everything is up in the air, and you’d be naïve to think otherwise.
True, McCain isn’t a nutter. He presumably wants the United States of America to have a defense secretary (although the heavily credentialed neocon right probably thinks collectively what AEI’s Danielle Pletka wrote Monday, that SecDef is “a lousy job in an administration that doesn’t want a secretary of defense nor the department he runs”). He is said to have a positive view of Michele Flournoy, one of the leading nominees, so that could help if Obama goes in her direction.
McCain may run the committee (or will, come next year). But he doesn’t run the Republican Party. Indeed, if we learned anything about that relationship during his 2008 presidential run, we learned that the Republican Party runs him. And if something happens and the base rises up in indignation, who knows?
What would that something be? It’s hard to say. But that’s the point: It could be anything. As we know well, it doesn’t have to be connected to real life. I was going to spend part of my day assiduously researching the backgrounds of Flournoy and Ashton Carter, the other first-tier contender, but then I realized that doing so would be utterly pointless, because any “controversy” that might erupt in the process need not have anything to do with something either has actually done. Remember, during Hagel’s hearings, Cruz accused him of being a stooge for Iran and of perhaps accepting $200,000 from North Korea or Saudi Arabia.
And remember this: Hagel was confirmed by the Armed Services Committee on a straight party line 14-11 vote, meaning that every Republican—including McCain—opposed him. So they were perfectly willing then for the United States to go without a defense secretary for a while. When the Hagel nomination got to the floor of the Senate, they worked out a deal whereby some Republicans voted yes on cloture to move the nomination forward but then voted no on the actual confirmation. McCain was one of these who voted yes to advance the nomination to a final vote but no on the final vote itself. Just three Republicans out of 44 voted to confirm Hagel, himself a former GOP senator.
The only difference between then and now is that they were the minority then and are the majority now, or soon. And not only are they going to be the majority—they are going to be a much more conservative caucus than they are now. Not enough attention has been focused on this fact. But go look at the list of the 11 new incoming GOP senators and Google around about them. With the lone exception of Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, they’re all in way-out land.
So even if a nominee does clear Armed Services, there doesn’t exist the remotest guarantee that she or he can clear a cloture vote (60 yeas needed) in a Senate where the Democrats will have a mere 45 votes. Getting 15 Republicans to support cloture on any Democratic nominee is going to be tough.
Now, granted, Hagel was a bad nominee. Cruz’s McCarthyist character assassination wasn’t the only story. Hagel performed quite poorly before the committee. So a well-briefed and disciplined nominee could change things. Also worth recalling here is that the next Senate will have two Cabinet confirmations on its hands right out of the chute—this one, and Loretta Lynch for attorney general. Chances are they can only garrote one or the other, not both, and being who they are in their collective (note: collective, not individual) DNA, they’re probably more likely to do it to the black woman. So there are scenarios by which an Obama nominee can succeed.
Another reason they might pass someone through would be if they decide the person can be a useful counterweight to the administration figure they really detest, namely Susan Rice (hey, isn’t she also a bla… oh, never mind). The scalp they’d really love to have, somehow or another, is hers. But it’s not likely they’re getting it. She announced in early November that she plans to stick it out. The House’s Benghazi hearings, if they ever happen, will produce, I’m sure, more sizzling details about how it came to pass that Rice went on television and said exactly what the CIA told her to say, but Rice is in this until the end.
The Pentagon happens to be up to some fairly consequential business right now, most importantly having to do with the Islamic State and Iraq and Syria. There are also Afghanistan and Putin to worry about. And there is the question of the Pentagon budget—the department spends (get this) $2 billion every single day. Not every one of those two billion dollars is well or even necessarily spent, so there can and should be cuts, but they need to be smart cuts, not across-the-board meat-cleaver ones. A new secretary like Flournoy or Carter, who both presumably know where the bodies are buried at Hell’s Bottom, could guide the department through that process knowledgeably.
So it would be nice to have a new secretary of defense. I suppose that on balance I think we’ll probably get one. But if you think that this process is going to be “above politics,” you’ve been paying pretty piss poor attention to the Republican definition of politics these last six years. We could still be calling Hagel “Mr. Secretary” for a while yet.