Last Thursday, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal — a rising star in the Republican Party — told a national meeting of the G.O.P. faithful, “We’ve got to stop being the stupid party.” He didn’t mean Republicans are stupid, but that they manage to look stupid too often for comfort. The recent spate of attacks that prominent Republicans have launched against Chuck Hagel are a case in point. Hagel, a Nebraska Republican who served two terms in the Senate, is President Obama’s nominee to be the next Secretary of Defense. But according to his Republican critics, he’s the wrong person for the job. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina says he is too hostile towards Israel, and too friendly towards Israel’s enemies. Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming authored an op-ed piece for the Wall Street Journal on January 23 complaining Hagel has shown “poor judgment” concerning the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan and Iran’s nuclear program. Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, levied similar charges in Sunday’s Washington Post.
No doubt these prominent Republicans think they are just fulfilling their constitutional duty to “advise and consent” on appointments to the president’s cabinet. But the closer you look at the details, the more you begin to wonder whether this isn’t just another case of Republicans not thinking smart about where to pick their fights. First of all, how many such nominees have ever been defeated in a straight up or down vote? Out of hundreds of cabinet nominees, maybe a dozen in two centuries. The usual practice when a nominee gets into trouble is to withdraw the name, but the White House has already signaled it isn’t going to do that — which means it is nearly certain Hagel will win Senate confirmation. So why are Republicans expending scarce political capital in a fight they are likely to lose?
Second, if Republicans actually defeated Hagel’s nomination, they would probably get a defense secretary less to their liking. After all, Hagel was one of them when he served in the Senate. He backed school prayer, school vouchers and missile defense. He opposed racial preferences, partial-birth abortion and limits on assault guns. He voted with his fellow Republicans to invade Iraq, and he supported every defense authorization bill that came up during his time in office. It’s true that he has followed the David Gergen-Allen Simpson route to academic fame since departing government service, but in his heart Chuck Hagel is still the Midwestern conservative that he was way back when his parents were pillars of the Catholic church in his Nebraska hometown. Silly me, I thought that sort of stuff would matter more to Republicans than whether he co-authored a think-tank paper on the future of nuclear deterrence.
And then there’s the most egregious aspect of Republican opposition to the Hagel nomination. The guy is a genuine war hero. He and his brother volunteered for the infantry in Vietnam, and the Army promoted him to sergeant for demonstrating leadership while comrades were dying all around him. He received two Purple Hearts, and had to drag his brother out of an exploded troop carrier while his own body was on fire. You may recall that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney didn’t manage to make it to Vietnam at all, despite being in the same age group as Hagel. Their “service” to the nation came much later, when they first presided over the biggest attack on the U.S. homeland in history, and then launched an utterly unnecessary invasion of Iraq. It seems that some Republicans prefer leaders who talk big but don’t risk their own lives to genuine war heroes who put their lives on the line for America. And then they wonder why America doesn’t understand them.