Joe Biden reportedly has selected retired Army general Lloyd Austin to be Secretary of Defense. Austin checks two important boxes for Biden. He’s Black and Biden knows him.
However, the nomination puts left-liberals in a box. U.S. law makes military officers ineligible to be defense secretary until they’ve been retired for seven years. Austin has been retired for only four years.
Ordinarily, a law like this wouldn’t matter to Democrats. After all, two retired generals — George C. Marshall and James Mattis — received waivers from Congress and thus were able to serve as Secretary Defense in spite of recent military service. Why not a third?
The problem is that some Democrats made a big show of opposing the Mattis nomination. Seventeen Senate Dems did. In the House, a whopping 150 Democrats did.
Their goal, I believe, was to strike a blow against President Trump — the same goal that caused Senate Dems to obstruct so many good Trump nominees. Because Mattis’ record was exemplary and, indeed, heroic, the only ground for opposing him was the law against retired military officers heading the DOD so soon after retiring. So Democrats seized on that.
Clearly, it would be hypocritical for these Democrats now to be okay with another recently retired general becoming Secretary of Defense. On the other hand, hypocrisy is not known to bother Democrats and left-liberals.
What, then, has been the response to word of Austin’s nomination? The New York Times features an op-ed on the subject. It states flatly that Austin should not be Secretary of Defense due to his recent military service.
More importantly, three Democratic Senators — Jack Reed, Kristen Gillebrand, and Richard Blumenthal — already say they won’t support a waiver for Austin. [Correction: Reed and Gillebrand have said in the past they wouldn’t support future waivers, but haven’t said they won’t oppose one for Austin. However, Elizabeth Warren now says she won’t support this one.]
This doesn’t make it impossible for a waiver to be approved. In theory, Republicans and Democrats could combine in sufficient numbers in both chambers of Congress to make a waiver happen.
I doubt, however, that Republicans will be inclined to do so. If Biden chooses to create a predicament over Austin, I don’t see Republicans bailing him out.
As to charges of hypocrisy, Republicans can argue that the waivers for Marshall and Mattis were granted under special circumstances — Marshall during Korean War and Mattis during the war against ISIS (don’t expect Republicans to argue that the Mattis case was special because Trump needed a steadying influence). Or they can argue that two “warrior” DOD secretaries in such a short period of time would be too much. Either argument would provide a fig leaf.
For what it’s worth, my view is that the “seven year rule” is best honored in the breach. I see no reason why a former military officer should be ineligible to run the Defense Department for that long.
There is no such requirement for presidents, even though the president is commander-in-chief of the military. Nor do we require Secretary of States to be out of the foreign service for seven years, even though that culture, and the personal ties it creates, can easily have undue influence on the thinking of a Secretary of State who marinated in it.
Moreover, we should be able to rely on the U.S. president to nominate a Secretary of Defense who will not, by virtue of ties to the military, jeopardize civilian rule. After all, the president is the civilian who rules the most in our system. He is not likely to nominate a Defense Secretary who will be a threat to the system. And if a president does make that mistake, the Senate can refuse to confirm the nominee on those grounds.
The key questions in the case of the Austin nomination should be: (1) is Austin a good candidate for the job and (2) whom will Biden select if he Austin is rejected. It may be that the latter question is already influencing some of the opposition voiced to Austin.