In short: Before, there was a big cross-section of the foreign-policy center and right that thought Hagel unwise. Now there may be an even bigger cross-section realizing he’s unqualified. It’s too early to say how badly Hagel’s performance has damaged his chances for confirmation. [Constructs another escape hatch.] My guess is it’s now slightly better than a 50/50 proposition that he gets in.
But perhaps more interesting than what his performance tells us about Hagel is what it tells us about Obama. It was clear before the hearing that the president saw in Chuck Hagel somebody who shared his (let’s be charitable) studied neutrality on the Israel/Palestine dispute, his skepticism about the desirability of American power projection, and his desire to trim a “bloated” defense budget. Mr. Obama thought he was getting a kindred spirit, more in line with his views, and in a better position to enact them, than just about any nominee he managed to retain in his first term. And a Republican to boot. But it now seems like the White House may have been so in love with Hagel’s measurables that it forgot to look at the video tape, to anticipate (obvious, heavily telegraphed!) lines of attack, and to coach Hagel through effective responses. There is simply no other way to explain the former senator’s performance today.
Nor, if you ask vets on the Hill (or Twitter), is there much of anything to compare it with. I’ve heard Bork’s name mentioned a few times, but of course that’s way off base. Bork’s interrogators were more hostile and less decorous than Hagel’s, and Bork was well equipped to rebut them, while Hagel looked out of his depth. No, the closest comparison here is to a set of Senate hearings that never happened — those for Harriet Miers.
Like Hagel, Miers was nominated by a recently reelected president at the height of his powers. But that wasn’t enough. Critics across the ideological spectrum were offended not just by her slight résumé, but by the president’s seeming indifference — or even contempt — for both the institution of the Supreme Court and the norms of “advise and consent” that her nomination bespoke. As if the fact that she was his preference — and his friend — were sufficient to recommend her to an office of great moment.
Hagel’s résumé isn’t quite so thin. His personal chumminess with the president is not so obviously the prime force driving his nomination. But unlike President Bush, who was wise enough to let Miers withdraw before hearings could vindicate his critics, President Obama has let Hagel flounder so badly that Senate Republicans and Democrats alike should think carefully about just how much respect the president has for the Pentagon — or for them.