McCain is Obama’s unwitting ally

On the Hagel nomination, John McCain is providing an important assist to the man who beat him in 2008

Topics: Opening Shot, John McCain, Chuck Hagel,

Remember this week: History may record it as the only time in his presidency that Barack Obama was glad John McCain stayed in the Senate after losing the 2008 presidential race to him.

Ever since that election, McCain has delighted in sticking it to the White House whenever he’s gotten the chance, broadcasting his displeasure with seemingly every action Obama has taken, joining in just about every GOP filibuster of Obama’s agenda, and generally destroying the reputation as a principled maverick he once enjoyed. When the two have crossed paths in public, McCain hasn’t even tried to mask his ill will toward Obama. It’s hard to believe that less than a decade ago the Arizonan was every Democrat’s favorite Republican, to the point that some dreamed of him joining John Kerry’s 2004 ticket; today, McCain is universally seen on the left as nothing more than a sore loser.

All of which makes McCain’s posture on Chuck Hagel’s nomination for Defense secretary somewhat remarkable.

Republicans, who have already altered the behavioral norms for opposition parties, are now flirting with taking the Hagel fight in an unprecedented direction. Sens. Lindsey Graham and Jim Inhofe have in the past few days threatened to place holds on Hagel’s nomination. Holds, as Jonathan Bernstein explains, are a courtesy traditionally honored by the majority leader, allowing a senator from the opposition party to keep a bill or a nominee from reaching the floor, but they aren’t etched into the Senate’s rules. Inhofe is also talking about mounting a filibuster, which would require Hagel to secure 60 votes for confirmation.

Simply put, this sort of thing just isn’t done in the Senate – not when it comes to Cabinet nomination, and certainly not a Pentagon nomination that comes with the country at war. Or at least it hasn’t been done before. Only twice in the last 54 years has a Cabinet pick been voted down, and never in that time has one been denied an up/down vote by a filibuster or hold. And as Majority Leader Harry Reid pointed out Monday, no Defense secretary pick has ever been filibustered. So if Inhofe or Graham follow through on their threats it could create a troubling precedent.

This is where McCain comes in. Officially, he’s leaning toward voting “no” on the nomination, and he did his best to rough up Hagel – and, possibly, to settle a personal score – at his recent confirmation hearings. There is no one in Washington who thinks there’s any chance McCain will end up voting for Hagel. But he’s also drawing a line against the kind of extreme tactics Inhofe and Graham are talking up. Repeatedly, McCain has voiced his opposition to a filibuster, and while he didn’t specifically address the question of a hold, he did say on Monday: “Bring it to the floor and vote up or down.”

There are several ways this helps the White House. Obviously, it suggests McCain will join with Democrats – none of whom have yet broken against Hagel – to oppose any filibuster. If there is one and Democrats maintain their unanimity, they’ll need five Republicans to cross over. McCain would be one of them, and he could make it safe for other Republicans to follow suit. (So far, only two Republicans – Mike Johanns and Thad Cochran – have said they’ll vote for Hagel.)

McCain could also give Reid cover if he decides to ignore a hold from Inhofe, Graham or someone else and bring the nomination to the floor anyway. With a leading Republican voice arguing that Hagel deserves an up/down vote, it’s much tougher for GOP opinion-shapers and pressure groups to claim Democrats are ramming through a nominee. There are probably quite a few Republican senators who, from an institutional standpoint, don’t want to go down the hold/filibuster road with the Hagel nomination. The question is whether they’ll feel safe saying this publicly. McCain is making it easier for them to do so.

This isn’t to give McCain too much credit. His questioning of Hagel two weeks ago only encouraged the right to make fighting this nomination a priority. And even if Hagel does get a floor vote, McCain could be helping to create another bad precedent if he votes “no,” one that could help make party-line votes on Cabinet nominations more and more routine. This would create a serious problem when, sometime in the future, the White House’s party doesn’t enjoy a Senate majority.

But for now, McCain’s actions will likely help stave off efforts to kill the Hagel nomination with extreme measures. Maybe this is just McCain’s institutionalist side showing, or maybe he still feels some kind of personal bond with his one-time ally Hagel. Or maybe he has some other reason. Whatever the explanation, his actions are helping the White House in this fight. And when you consider how eager he’s been to wound Obama these past four years and how eager his party is to derail Hagel, that’s saying something.

Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki writes about politics for Salon. Reach him by email at and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornacki

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