As outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta grinned, chuckled, and rocked on the balls of his feet during Monday’s East Room press conference, Chuck Hagel stood stiffly next to him, arms tight by his sides. When President Obama name-checked Panetta, Hagel turned woodenly to look at the man he would succeed.
It won’t be the last time Hagel will be eyes-front in a room looking to test his mettle.
As protestations by senators from both parties evidenced, the former Republican senator from Nebraska won’t ease through the confirmation process the way John Kerry likely will on his way to Foggy Bottom or the way other Obama Senate selections—Hillary Rodham Clinton at State and Ken Salazar at Interior—did. But Hagel, who earned two Purple Hearts in Vietnam, packs political assets that make confirmation likely. And if and when he gets to the Pentagon, Hagel will be well positioned, the White House says, to execute the missions of Obama’s second term, not least of them paring back the defense budget.
Democrats inside and close to the White House say that Hagel’s résumé enticed Obama—not just uniformed service in the military and his tenure as an opposition-party senator but also his time as deputy administrator of the Veterans Administration. One senior White House official said that Hagel’s “expertise and credibility in that community” of veterans was key to Obama’s decision to oversee the windup of two wars.
This profile, along with Hagel’s Capitol Hill service, fueled the White House calculation that he was a cut above two other oft-mentioned candidates—former Defense Undersecretary for Policy Michele Flournoy and Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter—and explains why Obama opted to pick this fight with Republicans rather than insisting on U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice at State. The rejection of Rice may have only annealed Obama’s resolve on Hagel, since back-to-back losses on national-security picks would invariably weaken the president. Rice fell, in part, because Republicans criticized her as an overtly political figure, an Obama apparatchik who prioritized electoral considerations above security. Hagel’s résumé inoculates him from that allegation.
And, the White House official said, Hagel’s misgivings about the Iraq war, very publicly doubting former President Bush’s casus belli, appealed to Obama, himself an early critic. “He had the courage to break with his party during the Iraq war and speak out at a time when it took serious guts,” the official said. “That not only impressed the president, it impressed a lot of people in the country.”
The White House’s plan for getting Hagel to the Pentagon is clear, as it peddled his military service this week assiduously; at Monday’s presser, Obama, Panetta, and CIA Director-designate John Brennan all used the word “patriot” to describe Hagel. Having largely dispatched with the controversy over his 1998 comment that a Clinton ambassadorial nominee was “openly, aggressively gay,” the primary line of public argument against Hagel is that he would be insufficiently vociferous in fealty to Israel. In a more subterranean way, there is lingering Republican anger among Hagel’s former colleagues, and those in the foreign-policy industrial complex, over his apostasy on the Iraq war.
Those doubts would prove far more devastating against a nominee with two fewer Purple Hearts. It would be passing hypocritical for senators, not a few of them vulnerable to allegations of chickenhawkishness, to challenge a decorated veteran for lacking either patriotism or fidelity to America’s national-security priorities. Hagel is a member of what the late, Pulitzer-winning editorial cartoonist Bill Mauldin termed the “brotherhood of them what has been shot at,” and would be both the first enlisted man and first Vietnam vet to helm the Pentagon.
“He’s got a little bit of kryptonite on him that way,” said one Democrat close to the White House, referring to the fictional element repellent to Superman. Hagel, the Democrat said, “has got the respect of his former colleagues. Little bit of a hiccup along the way on Israel, but that’s surmountable.”
Although it will likely not assuage Rice’s feelings, Senate Republicans’ effective veto of her chances elevates the degree of political difficulty for Republicans who would try to block Hagel. Stymieing a Democrat to block a Republican who cochaired Sen. John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign would expose GOP senators to charges of obstructionism, a label they prefer to leave to their House counterparts. Further, Obama concluded his personal closeness with Rice worked against her, believing her utility as a proxy for him subjected her to partisan animus. Hagel, while close to Obama and even closer to Vice President Joe Biden, carries no such burden.
In handicapping Hagel’s viability in the Senate, pundits have widely cited his lack of a natural constituency in Washington—not an uncommon dilemma for moderates. Hagel is a Midwest Republican who essentially abandoned his party in 2008, when he was coy about supporting Obama. But concerns over a natural base of support overlook what could be called Hagel’s “Lexis-Nexis constituency,” the large file of effusive praise that Republicans heaped upon him in the past. Democrats mischievously circulated the pertinent quotes this week.
Hagel is further helped by the fact that those voting on his nomination will be senators, individuals with explicit interest in not setting the precedent of rejecting colleagues or former colleagues anointed for higher office. They rarely do so. According to Senate records, of the nine Cabinet nominees the Senate has rejected, only one, President George H.W. Bush’s pick for Defense secretary, John Tower, served in the upper chamber. Former Sen. Tom Daschle withdrew before the Senate voted on his nomination for Health and Human Services secretary. Tower was undone by reports of tawdry extracurricular activities, odd in a body not known for being above reproach on such matters.
Hagel faces different challenges, including a GOP still adrift on foreign policy after a campaign in which the Republican position was not always coherent. If the party targets Hagel to reassert itself, it does so knowing he’s been shot at before.
This article appears in the January 12, 2013, edition of National Journal Magazine as The Surer Bet.