After 12 years in the Senate, Chuck Hagel chose not to run in 2008. Partly, the Nebraska Republican says, he wanted to move on. But he also “was disgusted with a lot of what I saw” developing in Congress. Now a resident of Virginia, Hagel serves on numerous corporate and philanthropic boards, cochairs President Obama’s Intelligence Advisory Board, and teaches at Georgetown University and the University of Nebraska. Edited excerpts of his interview with National Journal follow.
On the debt-ceiling debate:
I am surprised. You ask any bond market, you ask any investor, you ask anybody overseas—what they saw happen the last 60 days scared the hell out of them. Our markets reacted to this. I was shocked at that. You have differences of opinion—I get all that. But in the end, not recognizing the damage that was going to be done to our country and its standing in the world, and the good of our country—as far as I know Democrats, Republicans, independents, atheists have savings accounts and 401(k)s.
We did tremendous damage to everybody: college funds for Democrats’ kids, for Republicans’ kids, for independents’ kids. Why didn’t these guys see that? Why couldn’t they get above the cheap theatrics and the raw partisanship of a debasing, cheap political-tactical win? That’s what they played for—both sides, in a lot of ways. Not all of them. The leaders, I think, generally were responsible. But [House Speaker John] Boehner would be back to his caucus and they’d say, “No, no, no.” And I was astounded at that. I have never seen a time when the leadership of a caucus was so disconnected from the caucus. I don’t blame Boehner for that. I think John Boehner is a very balanced, experienced leader. But when you’ve got the kind of fever that has overtaken a good part of the Republican Party, that’s a dangerous infection.
On what’s changed:
There is a dangerous, toxic intolerance of other people’s opinions. And I believe that will in fact lead to a dangerous paralysis of our political system. You’ve got a world that’s hair-triggered. Look at your phones and your e-mails. We used to be able to kind of think about things before we said them. I mean [Rick] Perry’s “traitorous” comment about the chairman of the Federal Reserve. Now I don’t mean to pick on the poor governor, but you know that’s a good example. We just say things. And I don’t know if Perry believes that, but he’s never said it again. You’re going too far. You’re calling the chairman of the Federal Reserve a traitor if he disagrees with you on something? That’s an example of what our politics have become.
On President Obama’s biggest mistake:
Probably one of the things that hurt him most because it drained all the political capital—not all, but a good amount of his political capital and goodwill going in—was the health care legislation. I think the way they did it was not smart. I go back to George W. Bush’s immigration reform and Social Security reform, which I was supporting strongly—way out front with him on this. He failed partly, Bush did, by not bringing forward his own plan. Obama didn’t do that with health care. It’s kind of humorous for people to say “Obamacare.” Obama didn’t have a health plan. What did he do? The same thing Bush did on Social Security and immigration reform: Here are my principles, and here are my parameters and points; now you guys go do it. Are you kidding me? You’re going to ask the Congress—535 people, half of whom think they ought to be president—you’re going to turn it over to a dysfunctional process to begin with?
I’ve never understood why the president and his people, on a more current issue, didn’t embrace the Bowles-Simpson commission. That would have, in my opinion, negated all of the folly we’ve seen in the last 60 days. It was a bipartisan commission. It was a starting point. But here’s the thing: It was a plan. It was a real, real plan. It wasn’t theory, it wasn’t principles. They spent a lot of time on it. A president has to lay down something.
On why he’s hopeful:
We’ve got to find a new center of gravity in how we deal with each other in our politics, and I think that’s coming. I think a new emerging governing coalition is developing. Over 40 percent of voters registered in America today are not registered Republicans or registered Democrats; they’re registered independents. People are moving to independence, moving away from the established parties. It’s taking the American people to a new level of governance.
The American people are in the middle. They’re center-left, they’re center-right. As soon as the Republican and Democratic candidates get their nomination, what do they do? They run to the middle. Now why is that? It’s why Willie Sutton robs banks. It’s where the money is. That’s who determines who the next president is going to be. This paralysis that the American people are sick of, the folly that they saw in play the last 60 days here in Washington—they’re not going to allow that to continue.
This article appears in the September 3, 2011, edition of National Journal Magazine.