The conventional wisdom has been that, if nominated for Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel will breeze through the Senate. After all, he’s one of theirs, a former Senator. And the Senate remains something of a club.
Initially, I agreed with the conventional wisdom, and I’m still not prepared to say that Hagel wouldn’t be confirmed. The most likely scenario, I sense, is that Obama won’t nominate him, especially now that his record on gay rights is coming to the fore.
My impression is that the Senate as a whole won’t be disappointed if Hagel’s nomination never arrives. Key Senators aren’t exactly offering ringing endorsements of their former colleague, now that his record is being publicized.
For example, Politico reports that on Monday, Jim Inhofe, who is set to become the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he would “look forward” to supporting Hagel if he were nominated. He added that he got to know Hagel “pretty well” in the Senate and considers him “an excellent nomination”.
But on Tuesday, Inhofe told Politico, he was “not real happy” with some of Hagel’s past statements on Israel. He also remembered Hagel being “curt” in their interactions. My guess is that, having now seen Hagel’s record, Inhofe feels free to abandon “Senate speak” and tell us how he really feels about Hagel.
Carl Levin is the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. One would expect him be voicing unqualified support for his former colleague and the presumptive nominee of his president. But in fact, Levin is “guarded,” to quote Politico:
If [Obama] nominates [Hagel], I think he’ll have a good hearing and I think he’ll be confirmed. But hearings allow people to raise whatever questions people have. Do I think he’s qualified? I do. Do I agree with everything he’s allegedly said, and I haven’t seen the context of the quotes? No.
John McCain is also guarded. He says, “I’d wait until he’s nominated, and obviously I have some concerns, but those I don’t think we ought to be talking much about unless he’s nominated.”
I get the impression that McCain would prefer that Hagel not be nominated.
I also get the impression that Hagel was less than popular among his fellow Senators, and not just for being “curt.” One Senate GOP leadership aide told Politico that Hagel “left a bad taste in a lot of people’s mouths around here.”
A former top Senate staffer I talked to said that Hagel didn’t leave much taste at all. He was a “grandstander,” my source said, and therefore not a Senator one worked with on anything important.
This prompted me to wonder what Hagel’s major legislative achievements were during his two terms. None come roaring to mind and none come roaring off of Wikipedia entry. He sponsored immigration reform legislation that didn’t pass.
Other than that, he’s best remembered for his various dovish pronouncements on foreign and defense policy, many of which are coming back to haunt him now.
UPDATE: Senators Dan Coates and Pat Toomey have expressed strong concerns about Hagel as Secretary of Defense. Coates was particularly blunt, saying “I don’t know how you can nominate someone and make them Secretary of Defense who has had so much disrespect for the military.”
That’s basically the point Tom Cotton made in his WSJ op-ed.