It's clear after one term that President Obama chooses his fights very carefully, and this afternoon we learned that he's prepared to fight for Chuck Hagel.
President Barack Obama on Monday nominated Chuck Hagel, a former Republican senator, as his next defense secretary and counterterrorism adviser John Brennan to head the CIA, urging the U.S. Senate to confirm them quickly.Hagel, a decorated Vietnam veteran, would replace Leon Panetta at the Pentagon. Critics have already launched attacks over Hagel's record on Israel and Iran.As Obama noted in his remarks this afternoon, Hagel, if confirmed, would be the first enlisted
serviceman to ever serve as Defense Secretary, the first veteran of the Vietnam War to serve in the post, and one of very few injured servicemen to hold the position.
Though I suspect the confirmation odds are in Hagel's favor, the fight is likely to be one of the more interesting nominating fights we've seen over a cabinet secretary in many years, for a wide variety of reasons that will cross traditional partisan/ideological lines.
* Hagel's a Republican: For some Democrats, the fact that Hagel was a conservative Republican senator is an immediate cause for concern, in part because of his voting record, and in part because Democrats run the risk of reinforcing mistaken caricatures if the party's presidents keep turning to Republicans to head the Pentagon. That said, the bulk of the preliminary criticism on Hagel's nomination is coming from the GOP.
Keep in mind, though, as Steve Clemons mentioned to Rachel on Friday's show, the White House sees this as an opportunity: "[T]here are very qualified, competent people in the Democratic Party who are more than competent to run the Department of Defense. That said, the Democrats that came in, many of them that came in with President Obama, that were also part of the concern that Americans don't trust Democrats to deploy power, to be forceful in the world have adopted in many of the institutions they have built in the last four to five to six years a Pentagon-hugging strategy of not wanting to reform or cut because of the fear that they will be considered Vietnam Democrats, anti-military Democrats." Having Hagel in place to cut Pentagon spending and end the war in Afghanistan gives the administration bipartisan cover.
* Hagel's evolution: As a senator, voted in support of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, but later moved away from his party's line and came to see the wars in a very Obama-like way.
* Israel: Far-right activists are accusing Hagel of being anti-Israel because he's noted, out loud, the influence of the Israeli lobby in U.S. foreign policy. As Fred Kaplan and John Judis have explained, there's not much to this.
* Iran: Hagel does not want a war with Iran, and the right seems to find this problematic.
* Spending: The Washington Post editorial board criticized Hagel because he supports cutting the Pentagon's budget, which he sees as "bloated." This sounds to me like praise.
* Gay rights: In the 1990s, Hagel opposed gay rights, though his views have reportedly evolved. For what it's worth, Barney Frank, who said he hoped Obama wouldn't nominate Hagel, in part because of his LGBT views, now says he hopes Hagel is confirmed. Also, the SLDN has endorsed his nomination.
Collectively, there's plenty here to make for a pretty dramatic fight. The same Republicans who used to praise Hagel now want to tear him down, and the same conservatives who wanted to protect him from smears and now themselves doing the smearing.
That said, I'd note for historical context that only one Defense Secretary nominee has ever been defeated by the Senate: John Tower in 1989, who lost 47 to 53, amid reports he was an alleged womanizer with a drinking problem.