The Cable

Republican senators were for Hagel, before they were against him

A growing number of GOP senators have expressed concerns about the potential nomination of Chuck Hagel to be Obama’s next secretary of defense, but only four years ago many of these same Republicans praised Hagel as a statesman and even suggested he would make a good cabinet official. White House sources insist that President Barack ...

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

A growing number of GOP senators have expressed concerns about the potential nomination of Chuck Hagel to be Obama’s next secretary of defense, but only four years ago many of these same Republicans praised Hagel as a statesman and even suggested he would make a good cabinet official.

White House sources insist that President Barack Obama hasn’t made his final decision on whom he will choose to succeed Leon Panetta at the Pentagon. Hagel, the former Nebraska senator and current co-chair of Obama’s intelligence advisory board, has been fully vetted, as have Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter and former Under Secretary of Policy for Defense Michèle Flournoy, according to multiple sources close to the process. An announcement could come as early as Friday.

Meanwhile, Hagel’s critics have been mounting a relentless media campaign against his potential nomination, accusing him of being an anti-Semite, a homophobe, and weak on Iran. A loose conglomeration of interest groups, conservative writers, and national newspaper editorial boards have also attacked Hagel, alleging he wants to cut the Pentagon budget and accusing him of poor management skills. The effort has included documenting the "concerns" of several GOP senators about the nomination.

To "allege that Hagel is somehow a Republican — that is a hard one to swallow," Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) said last week, criticizing Hagel’s long-ago reference to a "Jewish lobby" and his record on Iran sanctions.

That’s quite a change from the sentiments McCain and his GOP Senate colleagues expressed about Hagel the last time his name was mentioned for high office, when he resigned from the Senate in 2008. At that time, presidential candidate McCain said he and Hagel were "close and dear friends" and that Hagel could have a place in a McCain administration.

"I’d be honored to have Chuck with me in any capacity," McCain told the New York Times in 2006. "He’d make a great secretary of state."

In the summer of 2008, Hagel traveled with then candidate Obama and Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI) on a trip to Iraq, and rumors swirled that Obama might choose Hagel as his running mate. McCain was all for the idea.

"I don’t know anything about that," McCain said about the idea of Obama picking Hagel for vice president, "except to say Chuck Hagel is a distinguished veteran and a very dear and close friend of mine and I cherish his friendship and have for many, many years."

McCain also said it was good that Obama chose to bring Hagel to Iraq, because even though the two Vietnam veterans had developed opposing views on the Iraq war, McCain said Hagel "has military experience (and) knowledge of these issues."  He also said Hagel was a "respected leader in America" who "served his country admirably, with honor and distinction."

If nominated and confirmed, Hagel would become the first enlisted soldier to ever lead the Pentagon. But now, as the nomination looms, Republican senators have gone so far as to question Hagel’s military experience and his credibility with our troops in uniform.

"I don’t know how you can nominate someone and make them secretary of defense who has had so much disrespect for the military," Sen. Dan Coats (R-IN) told an Indianapolis radio station last week. "And said so many public things in opposition to the military, what it stands for, the values that it holds. Chuck has alienated an awful lot of people."

Coats’s argument, which mimics the attack ads of right-wing groups, is that Hagel is somehow to the "left" of Obama on crucial national security issues and that Hagel has moved away from his conservative principles since leaving office.

"[I]deologically [Hagel] has moved from a conservative Republican coming out of Nebraska to someone that looks like they are out of the most leftist state in the country and exceeding even a lot of Democrats, who also have concerns about his ideology and where he is coming from," Coats said.

But Hagel’s positions on things like unilateral sanctions, the use of force abroad, and the role of America are the same as they were in 2008. He has taken no votes that would indicate a policy shift and he has authored no papers that show a departure from his long held views.

By contrast, his former GOP colleagues have completely changed their tune on Hagel in the four years since he left the Senate. During speeches on the floor to commemorate his retirement in 2008, several senior GOP senators praised Hagel effusively.

"In two terms in the Senate, Chuck has earned the respect of his colleagues and risen to national prominence as a clear voice on foreign policy and national security," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). "He has consistently fought to expand free trade, particularly with Vietnam. Chuck’s stature as a leading voice in foreign affairs has earned him a reputation, in just 12 years in the Senate, as one of Nebraska’s great statesmen. This is a tribute to his intelligence, hard work, and devotion to a country that he has served his entire adult life."

"When Senator Hagel came to the Senate, his actions often reflected his experience as a combat veteran. He did what he believed was best for the men and women in uniform, and he defended his positions forcefully," said Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ). "Senator Hagel has continued to protect and defend the country, notably through his work on the Foreign Relations and Intelligence Committees. He had strong opinions, and he was never shy about letting them be known."

"Senator Hagel’s heroism and service serving side by side with his brother in Vietnam is one of the most fascinating, heroic stories of any member of the Senate," said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN). "With that sort of independent background, you can imagine he brought to this body a sense of independence, a great knowledge of the world… [H]e understands the world better than almost anyone, and he works hard at it. He has been independent in his views, willing to criticize those he thought were wrong, including those in his own party. …  We will miss Senator Hagel."

To those who worked with Hagel in the Senate, the GOP’s turn against their former boss is a betrayal of the comity and mutual respect the Nebraska lawmaker and his GOP colleagues shared for so many years.

"Hagel and his former GOP colleagues may have differed strongly on some issues, but there was no disputing his deep credibility on matters of foreign policy or national security," one former Hagel staffer said. "These recent attacks amount to a mix of revisionist history and political gamesmanship, not a substantive examination of his record. And I think most of his former colleagues know that. This whole dynamic is a product of the trial-balloon method; it will change dramatically if he is actually the nominee."

 Twitter: @joshrogin
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