We haven’t had a big defense secretary fight since John Tower’s nomination got shot down in 1989. The former Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman was George H.W. Bush’s nominee and the Texan was pummeled over allegations about excessive drinking and sexual harassment.
In the generation since, we haven’t had a controversial Defense secretary nomination. Leon Panetta was confirmed 100-0. The others—Les Aspin, Bill Perry, Bill Cohen, Don Rumsfeld, Bill Gates—went through smoothly, too, even if they became controversial as their tenures wore on. The strong votes not only were about the nominees but reflected a bipartisan consensus about defense spending.
Those days are over and that’s reflected in the Hagel nomination. It’s the harbinger of the defense wars to come, the age of austerity and the age of smaller thinking. We’re out of the land-war business.
Hagel looks like he could easily get 35 to 40 votes against his nomination, which is striking because it means he’s going to be scrutinized like hell over the coming years. The no vote is also an I’m-watching-you vote.
There isn’t a lot of doubt that Hagel will be the next secretary of Defense, though, so the only question at his hearings was how contentious they would be. And they were pretty contentious, which reflects not only Hagel’s provocative positions but the agita he seems to cause Republicans and some Democrats who want to see defense spending maintained.
All eyes were on John McCain and the Arizona war veteran didn’t disappoint, aggressively questioning his onetime friend Hagel on whether he thought the surge in Iraq had worked. Hagel wouldn’t reduce his answer to a “yes” or “no," which led McCain to say that lack of an answer would help drive his decision on whether to support the nomination. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, the other McCain ally, slapped Hagel around about Hagel’s “Jewish lobby” quote.
Kelly Ayotte, the freshman Republican senator from New Hampshire, who has taken Joe Lieberman's place as the third cast member in the McCain-Graham trio, honed in on Hagel’s work with Global Zero, the nonprofit group promoting the end of nuclear weapons and which any number of Republican and Democratic officials have signed on to. Even Deb Fischer, the new GOP senator from Hagel’s home state of Nebraska, expressed grave doubts about the former senator. The ranking member, James Inhofe of Oklahoma, closed his opening statement with a poem about appeasement.
That said, the Democrats didn’t break ranks to oppose Hagel. Joe Manchin of West Virginia expressed his support. There was no break from Jewish members or members from heavily Jewish areas. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York sought assurances for Israeli missile defense and Richard Blumenthal from Connecticut encouraged Hagel to make a strong statement about Hezbollah.
Some of the most telling questioning came from Blumenthal, who was encouraging of Hagel but kept pressing him to commit to renewed upgrade of the Navy’s fleet of submarines, many of which come from Connecticut. Everyone’s worried about defense spending. Cuts are coming. The sequestration probably won’t be avoided. Hagel will be the first Defense secretary of the sequestration era. Today won’t be his last rough day.