Influential Dem Tammy Duckworth says she won't support a waiver for Biden's SecDef pick

She’s a veteran herself, having lost her legs during combat, and she was under consideration to be Biden’s VP before the nod went to Harris. She’s a no on Austin — that is, a no on granting him a waiver from the rule that requires a former officer to have been retired from service for seven years before becoming defense secretary.

But she’s a yes on confirmation, assuming Austin gets the 60 votes he needs in the Senate for that waiver. Last night I wrote that we may be headed for an odd scenario in which Republicans, not Democrats, provide the bulk of the votes in granting Austin a waiver and then Democrats, not Republicans, provide the bulk of the votes to confirm. Dems don’t want to sink Biden’s nominee, especially the would-be first black SecDef in U.S. history, but they also want to be kinda sorta consistent with their objections to granting a waiver to James Mattis in 2017. Republicans, meanwhile, want to signal their opposition to Biden’s nominee but they also want to be kinda sorta consistent with their support for the Mattis waiver. And Republicans tend to be more comfortable with having generals or former generals in influential government positions than Democrats are.

So we may end up with a weird bipartisan two-step. The GOP gets to show that it’s pro-military by supporting the waiver and then that it’s anti-Biden by voting against Austin. Democrats gets to show that they support civilian control of the military by opposing the waiver and then that they’re pro-Biden and pro-diversity by confirming Austin. All Biden needs is a few crossover votes from each party on each of the two votes to make it happen. Duckworth thinks he’s going to get them.

Chuck Schumer was asked about a waiver for Austin and said he’d have to “study” the issue but added, “Bottom line is that Austin’s a very good nominee and we’ll figure out where to go from there.” Hmmm. Biden himself introduced Austin at a press conference today, acknowledging there’s a “good reason” for the seven-year rule. “I would not be asking for this exception if I did not believe this moment doesn’t call for it,” he continued. But that’s just the thing. Does this moment call for it?

There are two new critiques of Austin circulating. First, while he’s a fine officer, he’s not known for his communication skills. Rather the opposite — he’s famous among those who know him for saying as little as possible, not necessarily the best attribute in someone serving in Washington in a political role. “[R]unning the Pentagon is one of the world’s hardest management jobs; it requires communications skills hard to learn on the fly,” notes David Ignatius. The more substantive criticism, though, has to do with the nature of Austin’s service. As the former U.S. commander in Iraq and head of CENTCOM, he’s just the sort of man you’d want at the top of the Pentagon if you expect your foreign policy to be focused on the Middle East.

But what if you don’t?

In particular, national security experts raised concerns about Austin’s lack of experience handling what many consider to be the most pressing challenge facing the United States for years to come: an increasingly aggressive China.

“This suggests quite loudly to me that Biden doesn’t take hard power, and the China military threat as seriously and urgently as we need to,” said Elbridge Colby, a former defense official and a lead author the 2018 National Defense Strategy that laid out the Pentagon’s pivot from counterterrorism to great power competition…

“Lloyd Austin has an extremely distinguished military career — but to me that’s not really the issue. What we need is someone who already is at the forefront of thinking and leadership on Asia and China, on aerospace and maritime power, and on technology,” Colby said. “That’s what not Austin’s background brings to the table, and we’re way beyond the point where we can have someone who doesn’t have that.”

“This guy was a recently retired commander for U.S. Central Command, so very well informed on terrorism and operations in the Middle East,” said a former speechwriter for Mattis to Politico. “But how will he be able to shift gears into the much more strategic issue of the Indo-Pacific?” Bear in mind that one of the people on Biden’s short list for the important diplomatic post of ambassador to China also has no experience there: Pete Buttigieg, who at the tender age of 39 would break the mold of U.S. envoys to Beijing. Are Austin and Buttigieg the sort of appointees we’d expect to see from Sleepy Joe if he were taking the threat from China seriously?

Here’s Austin meeting the media at today’s Biden event and promising to approach his job as a civilian, not as a military officer. I suspect he’ll get his waiver.