Chuck Hagel: why Obama is using political capital on Pentagon pick

President Obama just made it by one 'fiscal cliff,' with more to come. But he has shown he won't shy away from a fight in nominating former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel to run the Pentagon.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Obama listens in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Monday, where he announced that he is nominating former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, right, as the new defense secretary.

At first blush, former Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska seems an odd pick for secretary of Defense.

He is a Republican, a point that frustrates Democrats who would rather see one of their own in this key Cabinet slot. But, to many Republicans, he’s a RINO – a Republican in Name Only – owing in part to his opposition to the Iraq war and to his general wariness toward foreign entanglements.

Mr. Hagel has also irritated Democrats with past anti-gay comments (for which he has since apologized). And he has riled members of both parties with his criticism of pro-Israel groups and his stance toward Iran, including opposition to some sanctions.

In a way, Mr. Hagel is a man without a party. Many Washington analysts predict a tough confirmation fight in the Senate.

But to President Obama, who announced Hagel’s selection Monday, he is someone worth fighting for.  

“Chuck Hagel is the leader that our troops deserve,” Mr. Obama said. “He is an American patriot.”

Hagel would be the first enlisted man, and the first Vietnam veteran, to head the Pentagon. He “bears the scars and the shrapnel” from his military service, Obama noted. The president takes the “man without a party” argument and turns it on its head, returning to his first-term promise to rise above party politics.

“Chuck represents the bipartisan tradition that we need more of in Washington,” Obama said. “For his independence and commitment to consensus, he's earned the respect of national security and military leaders, Republicans and Democrats, including me.”

Some Senate Democrats have endorsed Hagel, and at least three Republican senators have come out against him, while others of both parties have expressed skepticism. Democrats have a 55-45 majority in the Senate, but Republicans could decide to filibuster – which would require 60 votes to overcome. And there’s no guarantee that all the Democrats vote with the president.

So why is Obama willing to have this fight, after watching one of his top prospects for secretary of State – UN Ambassador Susan Rice – remove her name from contention over what would have been a contentious confirmation battle, had she been nominated? (Her combative style and in particular misstatements about the Sept. 11 attack on the US mission in Benghazi, Libya, riled Republicans.)

Administration officials say Obama had not necessarily settled on Ambassador Rice for State, but her withdrawal left the impression that the president’s choice had been preemptively defeated. So it may, in fact, be partly because of Rice that Obama is proceeding with Hagel. The president does not want to look weak again.

He also expressed clear personal affection for Hagel in his statement Monday. As Senate colleagues, the two had traveled together in Iraq and Afghanistan. Hagel is also close to Vice President Biden, a longtime Senate colleague. Hagel has already served the Obama administration in other capacities, including as co-chair of the president's Intelligence Advisory Board.

Now that Hagel has been nominated for the Pentagon, it is crucial that the next stage – courtesy calls to key Senate members – goes well. It is especially imperative that he reassure senators on his commitment to Israel.

On Sunday, senior White House officials reached out to key American Jewish interest groups and sought to address any concerns about Hagel, according to CNN. And on Monday, various Jewish groups put out statements of support for Hagel. However the biggest and most powerful of the pro-Israel groups – the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC – so far has not put out a statement.

Other aspects of the timing of Hagel’s nomination also matter. Obama just burned some political capital in getting through the Jan. 1 “fiscal cliff” deadline, in which he got the Republicans to concede on tax hikes for the wealthy. Three more fiscal cliffs loom – on spending cuts, the debt ceiling, and on short-term federal spending – and he will have less leverage than he did last week. So it may seem curious that he has chosen to embark on a tough confirmation fight amid all these other battles.

But the same question must be asked of the Republicans: Why use up political capital over a Defense pick that most people outside the beltway don’t care about? Capitol Hill Republicans already have a bad public image, and with all the other battles looming, they may decide to let this one go. Traditionally, with some exceptions, senators allow presidents to have the Cabinet they want.

The three Republicans already opposed to Hagel are Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn of Texas and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma. Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, a top member of the Senate Armed Services Committee – which will hold hearings on the nomination – said in a statement Monday he has “serious concerns about positions Senator Hagel has taken on a range of critical national security issues in recent years.”

Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, declared Hagel to be “well qualified to serve as secretary of defense with his broad experience in national security affairs.” But another prominent Jewish Democrat, Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York, voiced reservations.

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