So far, the trial balloon coming out of the White House to replace Leon Panetta with Chuck Hagel seems to be losing steam. It came under immediate criticism not from Barack Obama’s Republican opponents but from prominent Jewish Democrats at a presidential Hanukah party. Yesterday, the Weekly Standard reported on statements from Senate Democrats looking to distance themselves from Hagel’s remarks about a “Jewish lobby” controlling Washington:
“I know there are some questions about his past comments and I’ll want to talk to him and see what his explanation is,” said Connecticut Democrat Richard Blumenthal. “Yes, it would give rise to question, but there are so many very significant issues and factors to be considered, and he has many profoundly significant qualifications for the job.”
“Any comment that undermines our relationship [with Israel] concerns me,” said Bob Casey of Pennsylvania. Asked if the reference to the “Jewish lobby” is such a statement, Casey said, “Sure, yes.”
Michigan’s Carl Levin said he does not agree with Hagel’s view.
“I don’t think it’s an appropriate statement,” Levin said.
And Barbara Boxer of California said she disagreed with the idea that there exists an intimidating “Jewish lobby” in Washington. “People can say whatever they want,” Boxer said. “I don’t agree with it.”
While the very people Obama needs to confirm Hagel ran for the exits, the Washington Post editorial board weighed in late last night with its own verdict on the Hagel trial balloon. While hailing Hagel’s honor and integrity, the Post’s editors told Obama to recheck his list:
FORMER SENATOR Chuck Hagel, whom President Obama is reportedly considering for defense secretary, is a Republican who would offer a veneer of bipartisanship to the national security team. He would not, however, move it toward the center, which is the usual role of such opposite-party nominees. On the contrary: Mr. Hagel’s stated positions on critical issues, ranging from defense spending to Iran, fall well to the left of those pursued by Mr. Obama during his first term — and place him near the fringe of the Senate that would be asked to confirm him. …
What’s certain is that Mr. Obama has available other possible nominees who are considerably closer to the mainstream and to the president’s first-term policies. Former undersecretary of defense Michèle Flournoy, for example, is a seasoned policymaker who understands how to manage the Pentagon bureaucracy and where responsible cuts can be made. She would bring welcome diversity as the nation’s first female defense secretary.
Mr. Hagel is an honorable man who served the country with distinction as a soldier in Vietnam and who was respected by his fellow senators. But Mr. Obama could make a better choice for defense secretary.
All of which puts Obama and Hagel in a political pinch. Instead of winning bipartisan credibility (even a veneer can be handy for a second-term President), the Hagel pick now looks needlessly provocative and extreme. With Flournoy on the bench and an opportunity for “welcome diversity” and a little history-making in the offing, the choice seems rather easy.
The only question will be whether Obama will balk at having to retreat under heavy criticism a second time on a Cabinet choice. Perhaps not, but Hagel is hardly the hill on which Obama wants to figuratively fight to the political death, either. Susan Rice had more personal connection to Obama than Hagel does, or for that matter a number of inconvenient friends and political allies over the years that have gone under the bus when necessary.
Here’s one last question to contemplate: who vetted Hagel for this slot before the trial balloon, anyway? This administration has a poor track record in research, but this case seems particularly inept.