Politics & Policy

Curmudgeonly Campaigning

If Barack Obama wants an antidote to hope . . .

At the center-left Brookings Institution — one of Washington’s most venerable think tanks — an American senator gave a major policy address Thursday morning. The scope of the speech was sweeping and it wouldn’t be unfair to say that the senator’s assessment of things is awfully bleak.

“I believe what awaits the next president is an inventory of problems more complicated than what Franklin Roosevelt faced on March 4, 1933, and will require the same boldness of leadership and initiatives that FDR brought to his time in order to meet the challenges of our time,” he said.

In fact, there’s nothing less than “a sense that America may be on the backside of history.” America faces “record high energy prices; deep devaluations and displacements in the housing, financial, and credit markets; record private and public debt; inflation on the rise; future of health care uncertain for millions; intense economic pressures for many; a combustible, unpredictable, and dangerous world.”

As for Iraq, well, you can guess what he thinks of that. He approvingly quoted Center for Strategic and International Studies president and former Deputy Secretary of Defense Dr. John Hamre, who recently observed, “Iraqis genuinely want us to leave, and the only issue in question is when and how quickly . . . what we now need is realism about Iraq.”

Fortunately, there is a cure for the darkness that is apparently descending on our land. It’s the politics of hope. Here the senator quoted legendary journalist Hugh Sidey: “Politics, when all is said and done, is a business of belief and enthusiasm. Hope energizes, doubt destroys. Hopelessness is not our heritage.”

“These are wise words,” he noted approvingly.

It’s tempting to think that in many respects this speech might have come from Barack Obama, but, alas, it came from Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel — though this shouldn’t be altogether surprising, since Hagel’s name is being bandied about as a possible vice-presidential running mate for Obama. No less prominent a Democrat than former Clinton special counsel Lanny Davis thinks Obama-Hagel is a good ticket: He wrote a long article about the possibility in the Washington Post in January, and Hagel’s been part of the Democratic veepstakes ever since.

Now that McCain’s hawkishness has knocked him off his perch as the Democrats’ Favorite Republican, Hagel has seemingly been auditioning for the role. His anti-war stance and penchant for pragmatism over conservative ideology make him a natural fit.

Unfortunately, Hagel lacks McCain’s charisma — or, perhaps more properly, McCain’s anti-charisma, which anyone who’s seen him in a town hall can attest to. McCain’s stump speech is practically borrowed from Don Rickles; he’s the only politician who can make people like him by insulting them in the process of answering their question.

In other words, McCain’s an awfully likable curmudgeon. Hagel is just a curmudgeon. At Brookings, he delivers his speech methodically, word for word from his prepared remarks. His delivery has all the enthusiasm of a man about to undergo an invasive medical test. He’s not in a good mood about it and he’s in no mood to hurry things along and get it over with.

In that sense, Hagel is about the least-convincing spokesman for the politics of hope you could imagine. And perhaps that’s exactly why he’d make a great running mate for Obama. There’s something oddly reassuring about a politician who appears not to enjoy his job; if he’s not energized by the opportunity to speak, he appears to be doing his duty rather than telling people what they want to hear. Obama’s mellifluous message of hope and change is prone to being so effervescent it nearly floats away. Hagel’s pragmatism keeps him tethered to the ground.

Of course, none of this is to suggest that, just because Hagel is against the war and has halfheartedly borrowed a page from the Democratic nominee’s rhetoric, there wouldn’t be significant problems in grafting the longtime Republican’s worldview onto a Democratic ticket.

For instance, Hagel was vociferous in his support for free trade. “The ongoing credit crisis and skyrocketing world food and energy prices are among the recent temptations for countries to restrict markets and veer toward protectionism that leads to dangerous insular thinking,” Hagel said. “These temptations must be resisted and the hard-earned lessons of history not forgotten.”

In order to ensure that these “lessons of history” are not forgotten, a Vice President Hagel would have to jog Obama’s memory, given the Democratic nominee’s vacillations on NAFTA and other trade issues. It’s possible that Hagel’s stance here would give him some “maverick” credibility, as anyone with a lick of common sense and/or not affiliated with union politics recognizes that Hagel’s right on trade. But given the level of anger in the Democratic base and the importance of the issue in swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania that are bleeding manufacturing jobs, it seems doubtful Hagel’s views will be welcome on the Democratic side of the aisle. (Perhaps it’s an omen that, outside the auditorium where Hagel was speaking, the Brookings Institution was serving only “fair trade” coffee.)

However, there are still enough areas where Hagel breaks with his party’s orthodoxy – his speech  reaffirmed, for instance, that he’s for a robust policy to address climate change — that a Democratic Vice President Hagel remains an intriguing possibility.

The speech was titled “Memo to the Candidates” — but it seems to reflect less a desire to affect the thinking of McCain or Obama than an attempt to sneak his own comprehensive vision for the future through the rhetorical back door. True to form, Hagel’s speech is a frank, though not always agreeable, assessment that touches on just about everything, including the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, nuclear proliferation, entitlement programs, emerging economies in India and China, health care, and the budget deficit.

All the world’s a stage, and politics is no exception. If Hagel is, in fact, auditioning for the role of vice president with his speech at the Brookings Institution, he has shown himself to be an awfully good actor.

– Mark Hemingway is an NRO staff reporter.

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