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Democrats Would Be Damaged by Hagel

It sounds like President Obama isn’t blinking on his potential Chuck Hagel nomination. Mike Allen reports that the administration is actually quietly coming to Hagel’s defense, an unusual move that suggests its commitment on this:

In an unusual move designed to deflate another public strafing like the one that wounded Susan Rice, the Obama administration is coming to the defense of a potential nominee who has not yet been chosen: former Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Republican who is the leading candidate to succeed Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.

Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, did not get a swift defense from a network of supporters around Washington when she came under fire for her initial comments about the attack in Benghazi. Hagel allies, however, are jumping to his defense at a time when critics, especially strong supporters of Israel, are attacking him on the Hill, in the press and — beginning today — in ads on cable-news stations. …

An official with a Jewish organization emails: “When the [Anti-Defamation League], the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the American Jewish Committee come together on something, it is remarkable and rare. … [A]ll three have raised serious alarms based on long standing interactions with Hagel, not over an isolated vote … Why make Democratic senators … walk the plank on this, when by finding a qualified Democrat, we can please the base?” …

William S. Cohen, who was defense secretary under President Bill Clinton, and a senator and House member from Maine, said in a phone interview that Hagel is “enormously qualified,” and praised him for being a moderate Republican, a diminishing breed on the Hill. …

Cohen added that if the opposition builds, and then Obama makes another choice, “It makes it look like he’s getting rolled a second time. It’ll look like critics on the Hill are determining who his team is going to be.”

The most popular argument from Hagel supporters is that his positions don’t matter, since he would have to answer to Obama anyway. That’s deluded. Of course Obama has the final word on policy, but if he just wanted somebody to mindlessly carry it out without giving any input, he could pick a far less polarizing figure than Hagel. You choose someone like Hagel because a.) you agree with his views, and b.) you want to let the world know that.

If Obama is unserious about preventing a nuclear Iran, he’ll be unserious about it no matter who his defense secretary is. But if he chooses someone like Michele Flournoy (who isn’t great either), pro-Israel Democrats can still pretend Obama means what he says in his AIPAC speeches. If he chooses Hagel, that’s basically like coming out and saying he supports containment.

“Why make Democratic senators … walk the plank on this, when by finding a qualified Democrat, we can please the base?” a Jewish organization official told Mike Allen in the story above. Walking the plank is a good way to put it.

If Hagel is nominated, he will most likely get through, but it will be brutal for Democrats. Not just the confirmation process–though it will be embarrassing and damaging for Obama to have to defend some of the statements and positions Hagel’s critics will drag out. The real damage would come later–think of how the left demonized Donald Rumsfeld. Every move Hagel makes would be scrutinized and politicized. Anything controversial would be hung around the necks of the Democratic Party. For the most part, Republicans have gone easy on Obama’s defense secretaries, but that would change.



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