The Price of Hagel

Could this nomination fight change the electoral map in 2016?

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

The Hagel nomination fight will have significant effects, but they won’t come in America’s national security policy. As much as any president in recent memory, Barack Obama has made sure the fundamental direction and specific tactical choices come straight from his desk. His State of the Union speech this week doubled down on his fundamental priorities — aggressive, targeted counterterrorism; reducing the role and threat of nuclear weapons; using engagement as a primary tool to secure American interestsall of which were in place long before Defense Secretary Hagel was a twinkle in anyone’s eye.

The fight — as long as it plays out in elite media and on C-SPAN, and is dwarfed nationally by limping cruise ships and the Pope — is also unlikely to have any serious effect on public opinion about national security policy. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the opinions that have been dubbed "controversial" when attributed to Hagel are, it turns out, quite firmly held among the public: the need to rein in Pentagon waste, support for negotiations before military action to constrain Iran’s nuclear program, and the desire for the United States to be a leader for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

Nonetheless, this tempest-in-the-Beltway may reverberate in American politics for years to come. Here’s why:

It could shift the electoral map. Senator Carl Levin — the fifth-most senior U.S. senator and longtime chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee — has waged a draining struggle for comity on that committee in recent years, negotiating painstaking deals with Senator John McCain to report out bipartisan defense authorization bills. The SASC has passed such legislation for 51 years running now. By contrast, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has passed only one authorization bill in the last seven years.

Meanwhile, Levin raised only $13,000 in the last quarter of 2012, and some wonder whether he will run again in 2014, at which time he will be 80 years old. No one thinks he would have trouble winning if he wanted, but the ugly back-and-forth with Senator Jim Inhofe, McCain’s replacement as ranking member, and Levin’s evident frustration with Inhofe’s demands for unprecedented levels of documentation from Hagel, cannot have strengthened his desire to stay on.

If Levin goes, he sets in motion two subtle but important shifts in the political landscape. Levin is the youngest of the trio who lead Michigan’s congressional delegation — and Michigan Democratic politics. Levin, his brother Congressman Sander Levin, and Congressman John Dingell, the longest-serving House member, all solidified their hold on Michigan politics decades ago. A talented set of much younger pols is waiting in the wings — but most lack statewide name recognition and all lack national experience. With Michigan’s Democratic Party badly bruised by its 2012 labor referendum loss, and the GOP governor’s successful move to pass a right-to-work law, the ugly Hagel fight could be the butterfly that winds up changing a significant piece of the 2016 electoral map.

The SASC might get more aggressive. Next in line for Levin’s committee chairmanship would be Senator Jack Reed, a West Point graduate and retired Army Ranger. Whereas Levin worked for years to build credibility and trust on military issues, Reed can walk right in — or jump, since he was also a paratrooper. Levin rose through the committee during the Democrats’ years in the wilderness as the party not trusted on national security. By contrast, Reed’s time on the committee has been marked by the searing Iraq vote and conflict, and the political consequences which — as the Hagel hearings showed — are still playing out. (Both Levin and Reed voted against authorizing the use of force in Iraq.)* Inhofe has already demonstrated his distaste for committee bonhomie; Reed is a quiet man but a firmly independent one. Neither man seems likely to continue the tradition, described by a former SASC staffer, of putting "the institution [the committee] ahead of party or politics." Only one-third of SASC members were in the Senate for the Iraq vote. With McCain out of the chair, and even more so if Levin is gone, the Hagel hearing seems likely to have been a preview of how the committee functions in the future, rather than an aberration.

*Correction: Originally, this sentence incorrectly stated that Sen. Levin voted for the authorization.

This is perhaps less a catastrophe than it might seem. Observers from both parties, including longtime Senate and Pentagon staffers, have commented for years that congressional coziness has been an obstacle to serious reform of Pentagon procurement, healthcare, and contracting — and that Congress has too-often blocked the Pentagon’s own attempts at reform. Who wouldn’t love to see the aggression Senator Ted Cruz turned on Hagel aimed at the creators of the fighter jet whose pilots pass out in flight, or the amphibious vehicle whose doors don’t seal? Or a serious policy debate over global engagement versus offshore balancing, with Reed and Utah libertarian Senator Mike Lee leading the sides?

Filibuster reform will stall. Earlier this year, the Senate adopted a filibuster reform that seemed modest, but real. Hours for debate were shortened, workarounds added, and the ability to filibuster in absentia was removed, in principle. But the GOP’s decision to force Hagel’s nomination over the 60-vote threshold — and not grant it on the first try — has led to a reassessment. First, the new rules still left plenty of technicalities through which a 45-seat minority party can delay action as long as it likes. And second, as might have been expected the first time a minority party saw stopping a nomination to be to its advantage, Democrats and good government advocates cried foul.

Filibuster reform advocates have seized on the imbroglio to call on Senator Harry Reid to take up the issue again and push further. But, for the moment, this seems unlikely. If the nomination is allowed to proceed smoothly after recess, as McCain and others pledged on the floor last week, the memory of the delay will soon be overtaken by more pressing fights.* Instead of change, we will simply have gotten an unlovely Senate recess filled with 10 days of alleged Hagel quotes which, while unlikely to change any votes, can’t be helping global perceptions of the seriousness of U.S. military power. Thus, filibuster reform becomes one more seemingly meaningful idea that wilts in the Capitol’s hot air — and takes a little bit more of our legislature’s popular legitimacy with it.

The center of gravity may shift on foreign policy. The White House decision to nominate Hagel injected partisanship into a fight that has been, since 2009, a civil war within the Republican Party. But take the Democrats away and what you see is a free-fire zone with neoconservatives and their heirs on one side and libertarians and their sympathizers on the other. Mitt Romney’s struggles to enunciate national security policies in the last election were in many ways a reflection of how withering this crossfire has gotten. It may be costing the GOP support as younger veterans leave the party; it is certainly costing the country intelligent and thoughtful debate when you have three-star general and former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft saying of himself and Hagel:

We haven’t moved; the Republican Party has moved….I have been a lifelong Republican and I hold to what are my own beliefs, which happen to be core Republican beliefs, but many in the party have taken a different course.

Hagel is no liberal, and neither are many of the dozens of retired generals, admirals, and ambassadors who spoke out in favor of his nomination. (Indeed, not every Democrat is thrilled at the flood of realists into the party’s ranks — but that day of reckoning will be put off as long as the GOP conflict continues.)

If Hagel is confirmed, as seems likely, will the realists resurge? Will Senators Jack Reed, Mark Begich, and Lisa Murkowski create a new center on national security? Might Hagel, or one of his GOP Senate supporters, be the 21st century Republican equivalent of Henry "Scoop" Jackson, the Democrat and vigorous Cold Warrior who did as much as any individual to create bipartisan foreign policy, while leaving great bitterness within his own party? If so, Hagel would do our broken politics a considerable service. If not, one wonders what it will take for that center to re-emerge — and whether instead the Republicans who belong in it by temperament will follow Hagel’s exodus.

*Correction: This sentence originally stated that filibuster reform would likely shorten post-cloture debate on Hagel’s nomination. In fact, the new rules limiting debate do not apply to votes to confirm Cabinet nominations.

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