Why Chuck Hagel is likely to squeak through as Defense secretary

Chuck Hagel probably has enough Senate votes to be confirmed as Defense secretary, despite a poor showing at his confirmation hearing. But if the GOP opts to filibuster his nomination, conventional wisdom gets upended.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Secretary of Defense nominee Chuck Hagel testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday.

Secretary of Defense nominee Chuck Hagel is getting some very bad reviews for his performance before the Senate Armed Services Committee Thursday. Mr. Hagel seemed unprepared for tough questions from Sen. John McCain and other Republicans and at times did not seem to grasp existing Obama administration policy.

“The result was a nominee who searched for words like he was trapped in a closet, grasping for a dropped flashlight,” wrote Slate’s Dave Weigel in a fairly typical summation after the hearing was (mercifully) over.

Senator McCain, a former friend and fellow GOP maverick, hammered Hagel over the latter’s nonsupport of the Bush administration’s military "surge" during the Iraq war. Hagel twisted and turned to avoid answering “yes or no” as to whether this disavowal had been proved wrong by history.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina went after Hagel for his perceived squishiness on US support for Israel. Hagel seemed flustered by Senator Graham’s demand that he name one lawmaker who’d been intimidated by the “Israeli lobby.”

Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas did something with video clips of a Hagel appearance on Al Jazeera, while other Republicans went after him for signing on to a think-tank report that held out zero nuclear weapons as a laudable goal.

Overall, Hagel looked taken aback. There’s been “more attention paid to words in the last eight weeks than I ever thought possible,” he said.

Does this matter? The conventional wisdom is that it does not. Democrats control 55 votes in the Senate, and they’re a majority on the Senate Armed Services Committee, so Hagel's ride to the E-Ring seems open from here. As long as the party stays united, President Obama will get his pick for the Pentagon, right?

Plus, the issues Hagel fumbled – Iraq, Israeli relations, nuclear weapons – are for the most part not high on voter interest lists.

“Democrats appear to be still on board with Hagel,” writes Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post on The Fix political blog.

We’re not sure it will be that easy, though. After all, it’s possible GOP senators will make it clear that they may filibuster the nomination. That would be unusual – the Senate normally gives presidents the benefit of the doubt for executive branch nominees – but not unprecedented. If that’s the case, Hagel will actually need 60 votes. Five Republicans will have to jump on board.

Here’s why those five votes might be tough to tote up: The GOP may feel that Hagel is a teetering nominee and decide to make a stand. After all, the very thing Hagel appeared bad at – answering questions in front of cameras – is a basic skill necessary to be a national politician. That’s why his statement that he was surprised his words were parsed so closely is hard to fathom. That’s what Washington does! Yet Hagel was taken aback. It’s as if he’d taken a trip to Rome and after coming back complained that all the food there was Italian.

Plus, the secretary of Defense has to manage tough customers. The military services are headed by generals and admirals who have spent years learning their business and are backed by vast bureaucracies. Trust us – they’re already trying to figure out how then can get this Hagel guy to go on a long morale-boosting tour of bases that are very far away.

So conservatives are beside themselves.

Hagel’s “problem is a demonstrated, incredibly remarkable lack of competence,” said conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer on Fox News.

It’s more likely than not that Hagel still gets confirmed. But he needs to buckle up – the road before he gets there may be bumpy after all.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.