President Barack Obama appears poised to nominate Chuck Hagel, who served two terms in the US Senate as a Republican, to succeed Leon Panetta as Defense Secretary.
Multiple media outlets are reporting that Hagel will be Obama’s choice to take over for Panetta at the DoD. Many of those same outlets are predicting that Hagel will face strong resistance in his Senate confirmation hearings, with much of the opposition coming from Republicans.
According to a report published Sunday in USA Today, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) has called Hagel too inexperienced to lead the Defense Department, and Republican South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who serves on the Armed Services committee, told NBC that Hagel should not expect a lot of confirmation votes from Republicans.
Hagel, like all Cabinet nominees, needs a simple majority in the Senate to win confirmation. The current balance is 53 Democrats, 45 Republicans, and two independents – Angus King of Maine and socialist Bernie Sanders of Vermont – who caucus with the Democrats.
Some of the talk around opposition to Hagel has focused on his alleged lack of commitment to Israel and a 1998 remark he made about James Hormel, a gay Clinton appointee who later served as ambassador to Luxembourg.
According to the Los Angeles Times, many Republicans are suspicious of Hagel because he has called on Israel to negotiate with Palestinians and because he opposed some of the sanctions aimed at Iran.
Hagel called Hormel “openly, aggressively gay” and voiced his opposition to an ambassadorship for the meatpacking heir. Then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi never allowed a vote on Hormel, but Clinton used a recess appointment to make Hormel ambassador. In December, Hagel apologized for the 14-year-old remarks.
While these are major issues that will no doubt surface in the confirmation hearings, as they should, could it be that some Republican opponents are more concerned with superficiality than policy? Could it be that because Hagel is not as adamantly Republican as he once was before the Tea Party began exerting disproportionate and undue influence over the GOP and US policy, senators like Coburn and Graham are more concerned with their own political careers than what is best for the nation?
Hagel backed Democrat Bob Kerrey, a fellow Nebraskan, in his failed bid to regain a US Senate in the Cornhusker State. In March of 2012, Al-Monitor asked Hagel if he was still a Republican. He answered as follows:
“I don’t know what the Republican Party is. I know why I registered a long time ago; my first vote was in the Mekong Delta absentee in 1968. But we’ll find a new center of gravity... After the American people speak in November, that gives us some new possibilities. If the president is re-elected, like most two-term presidents, your fifth and sixth years can be your most productive.”
One could read that remark a number of ways, but in retrospect, it would seem that Hagel was signaling Obama he wanted to come aboard and serve in some capacity should the president win re-election.
Obama did win re-election, by a larger majority than many pundits expected. Had the Tea Party Congress elected in 2010 not gerrymandered so many districts, the Democrats may well have won back control of the House in 2012, too.
Support for the far right is slipping and slipping fast, and it would not be surprising to learn that people like Coburn and Graham harbor a deep-seated resentment at Hagel for daring to use the “R” after his name since he said he doesn’t even know what the Republican Party is.
But then again, who does? The GOP has been in disarray since winning the House in 2010, and there doesn’t seem to be much clarity on the horizon. Hagel may or may not be the most qualified person for the job, but he deserves a fair hearing even if the most extreme Republicans no longer view him as one of their own.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Hagel will be given that “fair hearing,” but it remains to be seen if that means confirmation. At the very least, it ought to mean that things like an “R” or a “D” or even some other letter behind a nominee’s name should hold less significance than the answers provided in the confirmation hearings.
All we can do is wait and see how it unfolds.
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