It’s not clear if administration sources that leaked the story that Chuck Hagel had three practice sessions before a mock committee before his actual Senate confirmation hearing were trying to help or hurt the former senator. Hagel’s performance was so shaky that even some of his liberal supporters like Peter Beinart were lamenting on Twitter about his stumbling and bumbling answers to tough questions. That he flopped so badly after being rehearsed speaks volumes about how bad he was. Indeed, he had so many misstatements that it will be hard for news organizations to choose which of them to broadcast in their highlights of the hearings. But as much as his inability to speak coherently and present a plausible defense of his record while under pressure was exposed today, in what was probably the worst showing by a presidential nominee in a confirmation hearing in memory, it was his credibility that took the biggest hit.
Time and again throughout the day, Hagel bobbed and weaved when presented with examples of the contradictions between the voluminous record of votes and statements about Israel, Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah and what he has been saying in public since President Obama nominated him to be the next secretary of defense. Under tough questioning from Lindsey Graham, Kelly Ayotte, Roger Wicker and Ted Cruz, Hagel’s pose as a consistent and ardent friend of Israel and foe of Iran was shown to be nothing but a hastily constructed façade that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
As I have written repeatedly since his nomination was announced, Hagel has been working hard to disappoint those who have always shared his views since he was so eager to discard principles that he had ardently supported. But one such supporter was unfazed by his reversals. Former Media Matters staffer MJ Rosenberg is a bitter critic of Israel and its supporters to the point where he is considered toxic even by many on the left. But as Twitchy notes, Rosenberg wasn’t particularly helpful to Hagel today since he tweeted:
I spent a couple of hours with Hagel a few years ago. Talked with him about Israel. Happily, he is lying today & knows it. He’ll be a good SeDef.
But you didn’t have to have that kind of inside information to understand that what was happening in the confirmation wasn’t particularly honest. Throughout the day when faced with offensive quotes or votes that were inconsistent with his current stands, Hagel rationalized about changing times or context. But the more the context of each incident was examined, the less truthful the Nebraskan sounded. It wasn’t just gaffes like his statement that his opposition to designating the Iranian Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist group was rooted in his belief that the Islamist regime was a “legitimate and elected government,” which he later walked back. It was his inability to explain why he refused to support Israel during the intifada or branded its defensive war against Hezbollah as a “slaughter.”
But his deceitful approach wasn’t solely focused on his views about Israel and Iran. His attempt to explain his role in producing a report about America’s nuclear deterrent was just as bad. He refused to own up to his views and the plain language of a document that he co-authored. His inability to be honest about his opposition to the Iraq surge when pressed to do so by John McCain was not so much outrageous as it was transparently weak.
By the end of the day, Hagel was reduced to saying something that shouldn’t inspire much confidence in his leadership when he said his opinions didn’t matter so much because he was not being appointed to a policymaking position. Hagel’s defense of himself as a mere bureaucrat may be in line with the Obama administration’s top-down approach to policy but it is a dispiriting exhibition for someone who is actually being tapped for one of the most important positions in the Cabinet.
Chuck Hagel demonstrated today that he isn’t fit for such a senior post. His incompetent testimony should have embarrassed the president and backers like Chuck Schumer, who gambled his own reputation on a man who has little credibility. That may not be enough to derail a nomination that is being rammed through on a partisan basis by the Senate’s majority caucus. But today’s disappointing show by Hagel shamed not just Democrats but a nation whose defense is being entrusted to an incompetent liar.