You might imagine the president has quite enough trouble on his hands with the looming battle with House Republicans over extending the debt ceiling without opening a second front over the appointment of Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense. Although a distinguished former Republican senator, Hagel has already attracted venomous opposition from his old colleagues who think, among many other complaints, he is not sound on Israel and has been too critical of American policy in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Does the president really need more aggravation? Isn’t it a golden rule of politics not to spend your political capital all at once, as the president did in his first term when he pressed through healthcare reform to the detriment of an effective plan to reshape the wayward financial institutions? Having achieved a partial victory in the fiscal cliff negotiations by raising taxes on the super-rich, does Obama really need to take on the House and Senate at the same time?
The Republican charge list against Hagel is long, starting with the accusation that he is not really a Republican at all. Hagel, who believes “the Republican Party has come loose of its moorings,” might argue with conviction that it is the Republican Party that has deserted him, not the other way around, but he has certainly relished tweaking the noses of his old pals. In short, he thinks they are not up to snuff. “When you ask the question, Has [the Republican approach] worked? I don’t think many people will say it has worked,” he said. “God knows, I would never question the quality of our elected officials. That’s why I’m so popular with many of them.”
Hagel has gone his own way, supporting his friend and fellow Vietnam veteran, former Democratic Senator Bob Kerrey, in last year’s Senate race in Nebraska and declining to endorse his old Republican friend and fellow Vietnam veteran John McCain for president in 2008. After first supporting the Iraq war and the Patriot Act, he turned turtle, opposing General David Petraeus’s troop surge and even going so far as to flirt with the notion that George W. Bush deserved to be impeached. Hagel dared embrace the unthinkable, questioning America’s – and the Republican Party’s –unhesitating devotion to Israel, declaring, “Let me clear something up here if there’s any doubt in your mind. I’m a United States senator; I’m not an Israeli senator.” He has flown in the face of current GOP orthodoxy, favoring an assault rifle ban and backing abortion in certain circumstances, including rape, incest and a threat to the mother’s health. He has dared suggest that Rush Limbaugh’s hate-radio rantings and the imposition of Tea Party litmus tests to GOP candidates have damaged the Republicans’ electability.
But is being an independent, lippy Republican enough to explain why Obama is backing him for the Defense Department post? No, though it doesn’t hurt. When Obama was a lonely anti-Iraq war senator, he was no doubt grateful to discover that an old school Republican with two Vietnam purple hearts agreed with him. But it is not that, either. To understand fully why Hagel is so warmly embraced by the president, you need to hear of the lessons about how the Pentagon works that he learned while serving in Vietnam, a perspective that sets him apart from patriots on either side of the political divide.