I’m skeptical, but if a guy who’s been reporting on foreign affairs for 30 years (with a Pulitzer to his name) is willing to go out on a limb like this, he must have good reason.
I don’t think that a Hagel exit would hurt President Obama much. SecDef nominees have blown up on the launch pad before: Remember John Tower (picked by the first President Bush) and Bobby Inman (picked by President Clinton to replace Les Aspin)? Interestingly, both were succeeded as nominees by men who went on to be very successful stewards of the military establishment: Dick Cheney and William Perry. Calling Michèle Flournoy?
The prospect of a Hagel regime at DOD is a real problem now because the next SecDef will need to do two things: Work with Congress to reduce the defense budget thoughtfully, and work with the military to re-shape the military to make it relevant to future conflict. At the moment, Hagel appears to lack the political capital to do the former, as well as the intellectual appetite to do the latter.
Bottom line: Every business day that the Senate Armed Services Committee doesn’t vote to send the nomination to the full Senate, I think the likelihood of Hagel becoming defense secretary declines by about 2 percent.
Carl Levin, who chairs the Armed Services Committee, grumbled yesterday about the GOP’s demands for more info on Hagel’s speeches and foreign funders, which includes, allegedly, a group called “Friends of Hamas.” Levin promised to hold a vote on the nomination as soon as possible but, tellingly, hasn’t set a date yet, which gives Hagel more time to twist in the wind and maybe rethink things. (Then again, nominees have been confirmed before after enduring committee delays.) Withdrawal is the only semi-elegant way out for The One, assuming he wants out: Democrats will dutifully confirm him if Obama insists, and he’s not about to humiliate his pal Chuck by yanking the nomination. His best hope is for a GOP filibuster since that would tank the nomination and give Dems an opportunity to bloviate about Republicans’ unconscionable, unprecedented, irresponsible blocking of a presidential yadda yadda yadda. But so far the GOP’s been cagey about that, replete with McCain insisting that Hagel should be given an up or down vote. It’s a testament to how dismal a nominee Hagel is that lefty Michael Tomasky is all but begging McCain to change his mind and call for a filibuster so that we can move on to a qualified nominee like Michele Flournoy while laying this mess at Republicans’ feet.
One hitch about Hagel’s withdrawal, though. It’s true that O’s not above shoving prospective nominees towards the door while allowing them a face-saving withdrawal — see, e.g., Susan Rice, who “withdrew” from consideration a week after someone else had quietly been offered the job — but how does a guy who’s already been nominated save face? If he was prepared to serve and is only quitting now, after a disastrous hearing, then obviously he’s quitting out of embarrassment. Richly deserved embarrassment, to be sure, but still. There’s no easy way out.