The biggest factor in determining whether former GOP Sen. Chuck Hagel will win confirmation as Defense Secretary won’t come from his former Republican colleagues in the Senate, but from influential senators in the president’s own party. Hagel’s litany of past comments criticizing pro-Israel interest groups and less-than-enthusiastic support of the Jewish state will put a handful of prominent Democratic senators with a long record of supporting Israel under pressure.
None will be on the spot more than New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, one of the leading Democratic advocates of a strong U.S.-Israel relationship. Schumer passed up the opportunity to endorse Hagel’s qualifications in an appearance on Meet the Press last month. It’s notable that Schumer, usually a fierce, partisan advocate for the president’s agenda, pulled his punches. If Schumer doesn’t offer quick unequivocal backing of Hagel after he’s nominated, it’s a clear sign the nomination could be in trouble.
Schumer isn’t the only Democrat to watch as the confirmation battle begins. New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez, the expected chair of the Foreign Relations Committee in the next Congress, is a leading Democratic hawk on Iran whose views on the subject are at odds with Hagel’s. Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey, representing a swing state where Jewish voters are a key constituency, is another stalwart ally of Israel who is likely to be under pressure to oppose Hagel. And the minyan of Jewish Democratic senators, particularly Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin, New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg, Michigan Sen. Carl Levin and California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, will be worth watching closely.
Senate Republicans are already starting to telegraph that there will be widespread Republican opposition to Hagel in the Senate. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham said Hagel would be an “in-your-face' nomination by the president to all of us who are supportive of Israel” on CNN’s State of the Union. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell wouldn’t offer any support of his former colleague in his appearance on Meet the Press. But widespread GOP opposition alone won’t be enough to derail the nomination; it would take a few high-profile Senate Democratic defections.
On a broader level, the expected Hagel nomination underscores the changing nature of the Democratic coalition, which is becoming younger, more liberal and perhaps a bit less protective of the traditionally special nature of the U.S-Israel relationship. A December 2012 Pew Research poll showed a clear majority of Americans (50 percent) are more likely to sympathize with Israel than the Palestinians (15 percent). But among liberal Democrats, the split was much narrower, with 33 percent supporting Israel more and 22 percent sympathizing with the Palestinians. And while 58 percent of voters above the age of 50 sympathize more with the Israeli side, only 38 percent under the age of 30 agree.
That foreshadows an increasing willingness for Democrats to break from the party’s pro-Israel consensus. Indeed, Obama’s pick of Hagel as Defense Secretary suggests he’s willing to challenge the Democratic establishment's views on the subject because he feels he won’t get brushback from the grassroots, who are less inclined to view support of Israel as a black-and-white issue. This, at a time when the issue of checking Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons is high on the U.S. foreign policy agenda – and certainly is Israel’s top national security issue.
The fate of Hagel’s nomination, and more significantly, the larger Democratic view towards U.S-Israel relations, is in the hands of a handful of Democratic senators who haven’t needed much lobbying to promote pro-Israel legislation. Pay close attention to them to see whether Hagel has an inside track at the Cabinet, or whether the appointment could be the start of a tumultuous term for the president.