Liberals Against Hagel

The total Republican failure to cabbage a few Democratic “no” votes on Chuck Hagel is significant. One hedge from one Democrat would have completely changed the way media cover the nomination. (Politicians have never really been above claiming “bipartisan opposition” to something if one person from the other side signs up.)

But the agony of the process has won over the occasional liberal chin-wagger. I believe New York’s Jonathan Chait, who was at TNR during Hagel’s rise to fame as a “Republican truthteller,” kicked off the trend:

Hagel’s value proposition was supposed to be more than that – that he would be a commanding figure who could dominate the debate. The hearings cemented a buffoonish image Hagel will probably never shake and destroyed whatever value-over-replacement he could have brought as an advocate of Obama’s agenda. The Republicans are probably better off with a wounded Hagel in office than voting him down, and Obama can’t abandon him, either. The left-realists have lured Obama into a war that’s turned into a quagmire.

Chait’s analysis made it rapidly into RNC email blasts—“even the liberal New Republic” is like one of those nametags you can take from jacket to jacket. Yesterday, Michael Tomasky joined the parade with a stream-of-consciousness graf that reflects a lot of liberal thinking at this moment:

I don’t actually care very much whether Chuck Hagel becomes defense secretary. The only utility to a Democratic president of having a Republican SecDef is that Republicans will cut the guy some slack and not pester him the way they might go after a Democrat. Hagel obviously will not fulfill that purpose, so I’m not sure what good Hagel is to Obama anyway. He’s more trouble than he’s worth. Hagel ought to think about withdrawing his name. I’d rather see a Democrat running the shop anyway. The only problem with Hagel withdrawing is that it escalates this craziness.

Both Chait and Tomasky give Hagel too much credit in one sense: Whether Hagel, personally, comes off scattered as a speaker won’t matter to the people who wanted him. Months from now, the confirmation fight will be a memory, something he got past, like Barack Obama and the debate in Denver. Does Hagel run the risk of Paul O’Neill-ifcation, saying blunt or accidental things that spook people? Yes, though some of the “accidental” stuff will be in line with what the administration wants.

No, the promise of Hagel, for his dazzled admirers, was that he would personally dazzle others. For the more cynical realists, the promise was proving that you can criticize Israel, criticize intervention, and criticize the “Israel lobby,” and not end your career. Hagel’s last act, in 2008, was bailing out of the Senate as a Republican challenger started to outpoll him. The confirmation “corrects” that. It’s clear that anti-Hagelians want to make an example of him—deride Israel and you’re done in politics. So the converse is true for Hagel allies.