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The Battle Over Hagel: A Risk for Republicans

By Hastings Wyman
Southern Political Report

January 14, 2013

President  Obama’s nomination of former US Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE) for secretary of defense has promised to bring to the US Senate another one of those contentious confirmation fights that keep the cable news networks hopping for weeks on end. There are genuine policy issues underlining opposition to Hagel for that important post, including the role the United States should play in world affairs in general and toward Israel and Iran in particular.


While opposition to Hagel has cropped up in both parties, it is the GOP that should be careful of fighting hard and winning a Pyrrhic victory. Several factors should give Republican lawmakers pause.


First, much of the opposition to Hagel coming from the Right is based on a belief that the policies which led us into Afghanistan and Iraq – especially Iraq – were correct ones, and that Hagel’s desertion of that side of the foreign policy divide makes him unsuited for the post. But polling data generally shows that enthusiasm for that venture has cooled significantly since our initial invasion. The length of our involvement – more than a decade, the cost of the war, and the loss of lives, coupled with some veterans coming home without one or more limbs, have combined to create a popular will for getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan, where some of the Afghan troops are turning on American soldiers, and to avoid getting into another such painful morass. Libertarian-but-not-liberal US Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) noted in a recent speech back home in Kentucky that in last year’s GOP debates,  “most of the candidates were saying, ‘I’ll bomb them first,’ ‘No, I’ll bomb them yesterday, not tomorrow,’ and not everybody wants that.”


Second, Hagel favors major cuts in defense spending, calling the Pentagon “bloated.” Here again, conservatives, including a lot of Republicans, generally favor a strong defense. But a recent Rasmussen Reports survey found that a plurality of voters favored confirming Hagel; when told he favored cuts in defense spending, his numbers improved, with 47% favoring his confirmation to 38% against. In this particular economic climate, cutbacks in defense spending are not unpopular, particularly when many of the threats we face come from terrorists, foreign and domestic, who aren’t stopped by nuclear submarines.


Third, Hagel’s views on Israel are being questioned from the Right and Left. But while most Americans, and most Republicans, support Israel, calls for a more even-handed policy in the Middle East have come from a wide range of opinion leaders, including many who are Jewish and presumed to be more favorably disposed to Israel than other people. Moreover, for most Americans, US policies toward Israel – short of defending its existence – are not a high priority. And there seems to be no evidence that Hagel is anti-Semitic. His unfortunate choice of words in an interview when he used the term “Jewish lobby” instead of “Israel lobby” probably strikes most Americans as hair-splitting. Sure, there’s a difference, but there’s also substantial overlap.


Fourth, and perhaps the most important, the incredibly pathetic approval ratings that Congress merits – 14% appears to have been the most recent – indicate in part that the public is tired of endless wrangling in Washington. Week before last, it was down to the wire on the “fiscal cliff,” with neither side acting like adults until the very last minute. Now it’s a controversy over whether the president should get the man he wants as his secretary of defense, with a barrage of very unsavory charges poisoning the air. If we get that behind us, then we have the prospect of another cliffhanger over raising the debt limit. And maybe another hoo-hah down the road on sequestration, or mandated spending cuts.


Republicans took their case to the American people last fall and lost. Now it’s time to let the president govern. To be cast as the obstructionists in every battle is likely to hand the Democrats some powerful weapons in 2014. Sure, the GOP should make its case on all issues, but it doesn’t have to let its filibuster-threat in the Senate or its majority in the House play the dog-in-the-manger role in every battle.



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