In picking Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense, President Obama is also picking a big fight with the GOP.
The commander-in-chief is nominated former Republican Nebraska senator and Vietnam vet Monday afternoon, calling him the “leader our troops deserve.”
Unlike former Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, who is largely seen as a shoo-in for secretary of state, Hagel’s confirmation is far from certain—and judging from vocal GOP critics, we may be in for another Susan Rice-like slugfest.
Republicans have questioned the moderate GOPer’s dedication to Israel and his willingness to take a strong stance with Iran over nuclear weapons. They see a Hagel Pentagon as being particularly weak and dove-ish.
As for Israel, the White House has said Hagel’s stance has largely been misrepresented. And, in what was seen as a win for the 66-year-old, the National Jewish Democratic Council, which has been critical of Hagel, said Monday it would back his nomination.
“President Barack Obama’s unprecedented pro-Israel credentials are unquestionable, and setting policy starts and stops with the president,” the group said in a statement. “While we have expressed concerns in the past, we trust that when confirmed, former Senator Chuck Hagel will follow the president’s lead of providing unrivaled support for Israel—on strategic cooperation, missile defense programs, and leading the world against Iran’s nuclear program.”
A lot of the negative attention has zeroed in on Hagel’s reference in 2008 to the [Jewish lobby] that “intimidates a lot of people” in D.C., and adding “I’m a United States senator. I’m not an Israeli senator.” They also take issue with Hagel supporting direct talks with Syria and Iran, opposing unilateral sanctions against Iran and speaking against a surge in troops favored by then-President George Bush.
Republicans over the weekend immediately pounced on the idea that Hagel would replace outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta.
Texas Sen. John Cornyn said in a statement that he would not back Hagel’s nomination, insisting “his record and past statements, particularly with respect to rogue nations like Iran, are extremely concerning to me.”
Tea Party favorite Sen. Ted Cruz told Fox News Sunday that it’s “very difficult to imagine the circumstance in which I could support his confirmation.” And Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham called the pending nomination an “in your face” pick, saying Hagel “is out of the mainstream thinking of most issues regarding foreign policy.”
Hagel has also ruffled some feathers on the left, as critics point to Hagel in 1998 calling James Hormel, then President Bill Clinton’s pick for U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg “openly, aggressively gay.” Hagel recently apologized saying his remarks were “insensitive.”
Despite the criticism, Hagel’s supporters are rallying around him. Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota told ABC’s “This Week” that Hagel was “a tremendous patriot” and the nomination fight “that the people of this country get so frustrated by.” Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin touted Hagel as a “serious candidate” and a “decorated veteran.”
And Democratic Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island recently sang Hagel’s praises on Hardball, arguing the Republican’s combat experience is a “huge asset.”
“This is someone who has a very sound, realistic view of foreign policy, of military policy,” said Reed.
Still, the nomination will be a tough one. NBC’s Chuck Todd said the GOPer is essentially a “man without a party,” as some Democrats still are uneasy about him.
“If Hagel were a Democrat, for instance, you would have seen someone like Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., embrace his potential nomination on Meet the Press recently instead of being tepid about it,” said Todd.
“And if Hagel were a true-blue Republican—having campaigned for Mitt Romney and other GOP candidates last fall—you wouldn’t have seen folks like Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., speak so critically of him. But Hagel’s in no-man’s-land territory, the place where the public says it wants many public officials to be, but where Washington can eat folks like this alive.”