News Opinion

Critical rundown: Is Hagel the best man for the job?

Editor’s Note: The below article is a succinct analysis of a variety of opinions from journalists, analysts and public officials surrounding Chuck Hagel’s nomination hearings. We have published stories like these in the past, but the inspiration for the format comes from The Week Magazine and it’s online counterpart,

Former Senator Chuck Hagel, the Nebraska Republican nominated by President Obama to replace Leon Panetta as Secretary of Defense this winter, has faced enormous critique from both sides of the aisle for his candid and frequently controversial past remarks on U.S. foreign policy. Thursday’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee has amplified many doubts held by Hagel’s critics about whether he is the right man for the job. Below is a rundown of the critical response to the hearings.

Some Hagel critics, like Jennifer Rubin of The Washington Post, argue that Hagel is “sinking his own nomination.” His repeated inability to coherently answer tough questions makes it “unclear whether he was not prepped properly, whether he refused to be coached or whether he simply isn’t bright,” wrote Rubin. “Any fair person not under the thumb of the White House … has more than enough reason to oppose and block” the nomination of Hagel, who “has proven himself to be a remarkably ill-considered pick. If the Democrats won’t, Republican senators should save the President and the country from an unqualified and unsuited pick.”

Hagel wasn’t the problem, said Chris Hayes on MSNBC. The Republican senators’ questions, “even by the debased standards of a nominating hearing, were the cheapest kind of demagoguery and bullying.” Hayes posited that there were more than just partisan problems with the hearing, however, saying that there was an “underlying assumption that nearly everyone on the dais that American military and foreign policy is doing just great.” Hayes indicates broader discontent with the way many foreign affairs experts refuse to acknowledge current problems and instead remain entrenched in the aging format of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He went on to call out Democrats, as well, for their avoidance of “big policy questions” and tendency to “gently lead the witness back to the safe confines of approved foreign policy bromides.”

Current Defense Secretary Leon Panetta echoed Hayes’ statements, telling Meet the Press that “political knives were out for Chuck Hagel,” and voicing his disappointment in the overall conduct of the hearing. “What disappointed me was that they talked a lot about past quotes, but what about what a secretary of defense is confronting today? What about the war in Afghanistan? What about the war on terrorism? What about the budget sequester and what impact it’s going to have on readiness? What about Middle East turmoil? What about cyber attacks … We just did not see enough time spent on discussing those issues, and in the end that’s what counts,” added Panetta.

Claire McCaskill, a Democratic senator from Missouri, expressed mild disappointment with Hagel’s performance, saying that his years in the Senate had left him ill-prepared to effectively answer the questions he faced. “Chuck Hagel is much more comfortable asking questions than answering them,” McCaskill told NBC News. “That’s one bad habit you get into when you’ve been in the Senate — you can dish it out but sometimes it’s a little more difficult to take it.”

Sure, Hagel performed poorly, but it’s unlikely his confirmation will be blocked, argued Chris Cillizza on The Washington Post’s website. Despite critique from even Democratic allies, he still has broad support from Democrats, who hold the majority in both the Armed Services Committee and the entire Senate. “Short of Democrats peeling away en masse from Hagel, which they seem unlikely to do — as much from loyalty to President Obama as any allegiance to the former Nebraska Republican Senator — the only way that he wouldn’t be confirmed is if Republicans choose to block his nomination.

“In the end,” said Cillizza, “50 (or one or two more) of the 55 Democrats in the Senate will back him. And, this forgettable performance aside, Chuck Hagel will be the next Secretary of Defense.”