The Changing Dynamics of the Chuck Hagel Phenomenon

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Newsweek has a long and glowing article about Chuck Hagel (R-NE), his presidential chances, and his path from Midwestern boyhood to the corridors of the Senate. Sample sentence: “He is manly, Middle American — and when he talks about military matters, he exudes the cool confidence of a warrior-statesman who knows that war is hell.”

The one piece of information from the article that I didn’t know, other than all the biographical information, is this: “According to Congressional Quarterly, [Hagel] voted with the White House more times in 2006 than any other senator.” I guess I was so agog over the chutzpah Hagel has displayed in loudly and continuously objecting to the war and the Bush Administration that I neglected to closely examine the man’s record. Hagel’s Planned Parenthood rating: 0%. Secular Coalition for America rating: 0%. Darfur Scoreboard grade: C. League of Conservation Voters rating: 14%. Human Rights Campaign (gay rights) rating: 0. The man supports a constitutional amendment to ban the burning of the flag.

So for all his tough (and seductively honest) talk about Iraq, I would have a hard time disagreeing more completely with his politics. That said, I think if conservative Americans get to know Hagel they’ll find him pretty appealing. He’s got a strong conservative record on social and economic issues (as I just learned) and yet has led the charge against a war and a president that even Republicans are deserting. He’s a decorated veteran — which is a huge 180 from Bush, Cheney, Feith, Wolfowitz, and the rest of the “other priorities” brigade — and actually saved his brother’s life in Vietnam. He grew up in the Midwest (take that, Obama!) and had parents that “taught their boys that loyalty to country was paramount.”

And so Hagel is shaping up like the McCain of 2000, with the media taking it upon themselves to explain to the American people why they are missing a great candidate who — unbeknownst to everyone outside the inner circle — has presidential stuff. (Mickey Kaus is the only one puncturing the balloon.) Two weeks ago, Jonathan Alter wrote an article on Hagel for Newsweek cautiously titled “Hagel Could Have a Shot.” Now, as you can see from the Newsweek profile, this GQ interview, and this truthdig column, his media treatment has drastically changed.

But here’s what will hurt Hagel:

When the Senate debated a resolution authorizing the administration to use force to remove Saddam, Hagel took to the Senate floor and spoke in damning, eloquent terms of the folly of the whole affair. He then proceeded to grant the president the authority he needed. It was a painful contortion—one that could hurt him in a presidential contest—perhaps understood only by those who knew Hagel best. “I’m sure in the end it was, ‘Damn, he’s my president’,” Tom says of his brother’s vote. “It was, ‘I have strong doubts about things, but I can’t be disloyal’.”

That’s the Colin Powell defense, and it’s just not good enough. When you have moral reservations about something as important as war, and when you have been to war and know the toll it takes on young soldiers and the country that sends them, you bear an even greater responsibility to stand up. When you are not driven by ideology or a crazed obsession with deposing a crackpot dictator, and can think seriously about the merits of such an adventure, you are in position to put the breaks on. I recognize that Congress didn’t have much power to stop Bush and Co., but Hagel had an obligation to vote his conscience.

In the end, though, any guy that irritates Dick Cheney this much can’t be all bad:

Asked about Hagel last week in an interview with Newsweek, Vice President Dick Cheney said: “I believe firmly in Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment: THOU SHALT NOT SPEAK ILL OF A FELLOW REPUBLICAN. But it’s very hard sometimes to adhere to that where Chuck Hagel is involved.”


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