Four years ago, Barack Obama’s widely praised retention of Republican Bob Gates was done to reassure Washington of a bipartisan and competent continuity at Defense in difficult times. In contrast, the deliberately provocative nomination of Republican Chuck Hagel is meant to remind Washington that no longer will there be either bipartisanship or continuity, but rather a radically new direction at Defense.
Senator Hagel in his testimony at times seemed genuinely befuddled and sorely confused about his own past contradictory statements, his current incoherent beliefs, and the very policy of the administration he is to serve. In political terms, his performance did not meet the minimum level of competency to ensure that his supporters were not embarrassed by their own advocacy.
It was also hard to determine whether Hagel (in the manner of recent media appearances by Colin Powell) was just rusty from years out of office, or too accustomed to being on the giving rather than the receiving end of bullying questions, or for so long pampered as the “maverick” by favorable Beltway media that he became ill-prepared for genuine cross-examination — or if he was put in an unenviable position of insincerely retracting what recently he had so genuinely expressed.
Not since the failed 1989 defense-secretary nomination of John Tower — likewise a combat veteran and senator — have Senate supporters of a nominee had such an albatross hung around their necks. And yet, Democrats in the majority will no doubt win the nomination on the theory that rejection would do more damage to the Obama administration than confirmation would do harm to the country.
Then there is the old logic that a president should get the appointments he deserves, that someone who served in the Senate should, de facto, at least be qualified to be a cabinet secretary; that the deer-in-the-headlights confusion of Hagel should earn some pathos by reason of the sheer one-sidedness of the exchanges in the manner we so often come to empathize with the outmatched, and, of course, that he is a decorated combat veteran.
The result is that with Kerry, Brennan, and Hagel we have a much different national-security trinity from Clinton, Petraeus, and Panetta — though one far closer to the now unbound second-term visions of Barack Obama.