Chuck Hagel, Obama’s pick to be Secretary of Defense for his second term, is not who you would expect Republicans to get exercised about. Why? Because Hagel is a Republican being nominated by a Democratic president, and he has to be confirmed by a Democratic senate. He will also need five Republican votes to avoid a filibuster, but that shouldn’t be so hard, given that Hagel served with many Republicans currently in the Senate, right? Wrong. There will be a fight over Hagel, mostly because Republicans want to have a fight about someone.
If we look at Hagel’s candidacy to run the Defense Department in isolation, he seems like he should have an easy confirmation. He would be the first veteran to run the Defense Department. As an Obama nominee, (and someone already working in the Administration, Hagel is currently Obama’s Chairperson of the Intelligence Advisory Board) he should have little trouble with Democrats. There are reasons that Republicans don’t love Hagel, but one would think that a moderate Republican is as conservative as any Obama nominee is going to get. And yet, Republicans are raring for a fight against Hagel’s confirmation.
Republican Senator Lindsay Graham told CNN, “This is an in-your-face nomination by the president.”
Senator John Cornyn of Texas has already announced his vote against Hagel: “I will not support Chuck Hagel’s nomination to the Department of Defense. His record and past statements, particularly with respect to rogue nations like Iran, are extremely concerning to me,”
Rep. Tom Cotton said that, “I’m disappointed the president’s nominated Mr. Hagel, and I’ve urged the Senate to oppose that nomination. Mr. Hagel came out against the surge the week that I returned from Iraq in 2006, said the war couldn’t be won. […] When you add that to his dangerous views on Iran and Hezbollah and Hamas and terrorism, as well as his strange hostility towards Israel, I think the Senate should oppose Mr. Hagel as secretary of defense.”
Cotton lays out the basic case against Hagel: that after initially supporting the war in Iraq, he came out against it. He has also shown less than full support for Israel and less than full antipathy for Hezbollah and Hamas. In other words, Hagel has nuanced, contrarian views in a party that tends toward a black and white, good vs. evil foreign policy.
That said, Hagel is much more liberal than Obama’s pick for Secretary of State, Senator John Kerry. The reason that Republicans are fighting Hagel’s nomination and not Kerry’s is that they are excited by the prospect of taking Kerry’s senate seat once he leaves, and they want Obama to spend lots of political capital getting Hagel through so that he won’t have much left for upcoming fights like the debt ceiling showdown round 2, and whoever he nominates to head the EPA. Hagel is not a particularly controversial candidate, especially from a Democratic president, but Republicans want a fight, and so they’ll get one.