As if reporters don’t have enough to cover, with the House GOP imploding and another game of fiscal hostage-taking coming in two months, everybody’s gone all in on the “controversy” over former GOP Sen. Chuck Hagel’s nomination as secretary of defense. Yes, Sen. Lindsey Graham is shrieking that his foreign policy views are “out of the mainstream,” John McCain has “serious concerns” and Mitch McConnell won’t promise to confirm him, but this will blow over.
The biggest non-story is the threat that pro-Israel Democrats might ally to block Hagel’s nomination. Although New York Sen. Chuck Schumer conspicuously failed to promise to support Hagel’s confirmation on “Meet the Press” last month, allegedly because of his insufficient fealty to protecting Israel, Schumer is unlikely to buck President Obama. The National Journal’s Josh Kraashauer had a slightly odd column about Democratic Hagel skeptics, hyping Schumer’s doubts and pointing to the Democratic Jewish “minyan” of senators, including Dianne Feinstein and Carl Levin, as key to the confirmation. But Levin and Feinstein quickly came for Hagel’s confirmation after his nomination Monday. Schumer and New York’s other senator, Kirsten Gillibrand, both released noncommittal statements praising Hagel’s background and vowing a fair hearing, but stopped short of endorsing him. Still, it’s almost impossible to imagine the two of them going it alone, without Feinstein or Levin, on Hagel.
There are a few progressives who lament that Obama is picking a Republican, squandering the political capital he’d amassed for Democrats with his hawkish foreign policy and killing Osama bin Laden. (Daily Kos ran a campaign to get Obama to pick a Democrat.) While taking those arguments seriously, Obama critic (and my former colleague) Glenn Greenwald nonetheless called Hagel’s appointment “one of Obama’s best appointments and boldest steps of his presidency.”
Others have been irked that the president is ready to fight for Hagel in a way he didn’t fight for Susan Rice as secretary of state. I wish he’d fought for Rice, if indeed he wanted to appoint her, but I’m glad he’s bucking the neocons to fight for Hagel. It might bother me that Democrats are so willing to pick Republicans to head defense, from Robert Gates back to Bill Cohen under President Clinton, except that Hagel is better on defense policy than a lot of Democrats. His skepticism about the war in Iraq as well as a possible war with Iran, along with his unorthodox (for Washington) views about our relationship with Israel is reassuring. So is his apparent willingness to cut defense; David Sirota notes his public statements calling the defense budget “bloated” and suggesting that it “needs to be pared down,” sentiments you rarely hear from Republicans and not frequently enough from Democrats.
Hagel made dumb comments about Ambassador Jim Hormel being “aggressively gay,” for which he has apologized. Rep. Barney Frank, who first sounded alarms about the Hagel nomination, now supports him. Foreign policy wonk Steve Clemons, who happens to be gay, knows Hagel well and backs him strongly, recently writing that “Chuck Hagel is pro-gay, pro-LGBT, pro-ending ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’” Likewise, Hagel’s maligned comments about “the Jewish lobby,” which is more correctly called the Israel lobby, didn’t disqualify him with the Jewish foreign policy expert who recorded the remarks, Aaron David Miller. Miller recently called the Hagel attacks “scurrilous,” writing in Foreign Policy.
In the end, Senate Republicans may decide to hang together to deny the president a strong defense appointment. Even though McCain hailed Hagel as a good secretary of state choice in 2006, he’s unlikely to back him now, especially given the help Hagel gave Obama in 2008. Having backed Democrat Bob Kerrey in his failed Nebraska Senate campaign, Hagel is barely a RINO anymore, and his former GOP colleagues may relish the chance to rebuke their former colleague as well as the president they loathe. But I can’t see Schumer or other pro-Israel Democrats allying with them.
Honestly, if Hagel were to go down, it would do more to focus attention on the unseemly influence of pro-Israel hawks on American foreign policy than anything in recent memory. That may be why, so far, AIPAC is officially neutral on his nomination. Neutral isn’t an endorsement, and certainly suggests their reservations, but if AIPAC isn’t ready to make this a fight, it’s hard to imagine a major Democrat bucking the president to do so.