Commentary Magazine


Hagel’s GOP Problem: It’s Not Just Policy

It may not just be former Senator Chuck Hagel’s policy stances that sink him, but also his personality flaws. Nominated senators are usually easy confirmations thanks to the Senate’s clubby atmosphere. But Hagel isn’t known for playing well with others, and he has few allies among his former colleagues, Politico reports:

Policy aside, Hagel’s bedeviled by his own abrasive personality. In a chamber known for back-patting and elbow-rubbing, the former Nebraska senator mostly rubbed people the wrong way. Now, on his path to the Pentagon, he has to hope that irritation doesn’t come back to bite him. 

“He was respected as a colleague in the normal Senate tradition but was somewhat of a lone wolf and did not forge the deep personal relationships with his fellow Republicans that would translate into a ready reservoir of support for his nomination,” said John Ullyot, a former Marine intelligence officer who was the spokesman for the Senate Armed Services Committee under Chairman John Warner from 2003 to 2007. “On top of that, his outspokenness and blunt criticism of several Republican priorities at a critical time, including Iraq and Iran, while sincere and heartfelt, have left him without a natural platform of enthusiasm for his confirmation.” … 

The combination of raw nerves among his old colleagues and policy concerns among junior senators have cast doubt on Hagel’s confirmation process, which could prove to be the trickiest for a Pentagon pick since Texas Sen. John Tower was rejected, 47-53, in 1989. He was the last Cabinet nominee to lose a vote on the Senate floor, though others have since been withdrawn. A handful of Democratic senators, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), threw their support to Hagel on Monday. But Obama and Hagel could count themselves lucky when a senator keeps his or her powder dry.

This isn’t a surprise, considering Hagel’s reputation as a difficult boss who often castigated his staffers in public (in Adam Kredo’s story on this, Michael Rubin dubbed Hagel “the Cornhusker wears Prada”). Apparently he didn’t treat his fellow senators much better. 

But on the Hill, where being a team player matters, Hagel’s abrasive personality wasn’t his only problem. Eli Lake reports that his mercurial temperament has also irritated the GOP: 

For Hagel’s supporters, the former senator’s willingness to change his mind is praised as independent thinking. But for many Republicans today, this quality makes him something of a turncoat. And while Hagel has been attacked for his views on Iran and Israel, it may end up being the former senator’s “mercurial” temperament that will turn Obama’s nomination of a Republican to head the Pentagon into a full-on battle with the party of Lincoln. …

It’s these positions that have earned Hagel praise from his new friends and criticism from many in his old party. But just as the Vietnam War veteran was able to adjust his worldview in 2005 and 2006, he appears to be adjusting it again in 2013. On Wednesday the Associated Press reported that Hagel, in private meetings with senior Pentagon officials, expressed his support  for strong international sanctions against Iran as well as for leaving the option of military strikes on the table.

It remains to be seen whether these new positions are enough to persuade his old colleagues like John McCain to confirm his nomination as secretary of defense. The one thing his old party does know, however, is that Chuck Hagel is a man who is not afraid to change his mind.

If there is a filibuster, which looks very possible, Hagel will need 60 votes for a confirmation. In other words, Republicans alone have enough votes to kill his nomination, if they’re inclined. And with signs that some Democrats also have reservations about Hagel, the White House has little room for error.

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