Reading Tea Leaves of Political Appointments Not Yet Made

Is the White House side-stepping the Senate confirmation process in favor of letting a messy, sometimes ugly popularity contest drive its potential nominations?

Hagel and Obama.jpg

Something rare just happened.  Rather than me having to dog various of the media handlers or key policy hands at the National Security Council or White House on whether Chuck Hagel is on or off the SecDef list, I just got a phone call from a senior Executive Branch person in the know who said something along the lines that the media are hyperventilating this thing into the wrong direction and that the process of considering nominees is proceeding in a way completely different than the media are telling it.  This person said Hagel is very much on the list.

I asked if Hagel had the edge in the process -- and got nothing more than the above. I was told that there were concerns about "stature" and "command capabilities" of the other publicly mentioned possibilities.

220px-Michele_Flournoy_official_portrait.jpgBut let's be blunt about something. I can't offer my source's name though can attest to the individual's proximity to some of the nominee discussions. Am I being spun?  Perhaps. The fact is that I did not solicit this particular call and this person has never tilted me wrong before. If Ashton Carter, Jack Reed, Colin Powell, or Michele Flournoy end up standing next to the president introduced as his next SecDef nominee, is the information I just received wrong?  Not necessarily. This is a process where shadows and nuance are the rule.

What has happened in this mess of leaked potential nominees to jobs is that the political advisers around the president are able to take the temperature of various institutions' love or hate of their candidates. I mention institutions rather that citizens because this is entirely an inside-the-Beltway sport. How much will Bill Kristol, the Republican Jewish Coalition and others put into the kitty to fight Hagel? How much is the president willing to invest -- even before a potential nomination reaches the kicking the tires phase?

It's fascinating to watch -- even if the anguish of pundits and media do reach the flamboyance of a Quentin Tarantino movie. The not-yet-nominated candidate for a position, in cases like Susan Rice and Chuck Hagel, are also barred by instruction and convention from defending themselves or saying much in public. This reminds me of a hilarious, anonymously written item run by The Washington Note titled, "To All Those Waiting for the Obama Team Phone Call."  The writer eventually did get quite a cool political appointment in the Obama administration -- and survived the torturous process.

220px-Ashton_Carter_DOD_photo.jpgBut what is weird about this process is that it starts with a couple of leaks and good journalism -- in the Hagel case with The Cable's Josh Rogin breaking the news that Chuck Hagel was being vetted for some job. And then on December 13th, Bloomberg's Hans Nichols broke the news that Hagel was President Obama's lead candidate for SecDef.

Then the neoconservative machinery cranked up -- with blasts from Bill Kristol with some key assists from Senators Lindsey Graham and Charles Schumer. Hagel's terrible commentary 14 years ago about the then-nomination process of out and proud James Hormel as America's first gay ambassador popped up to generate a wave of concern in the progressive community, most particularly from MSNBC's Rachel Maddow. Hagel apologized for those remarks. Hormel graciously and emphatically embraced Hagel's apology -- and I wrote what I know and shared what I had written years ago about Hagel's pro-LGBT rights stand. 

The Hagel nomination's seeming complexity -- hyped up by leading advocates of policies that "help Israel so much that it hurts," a term once shared with me by Ambassador and then Israeli Foreign Ministry Deputy Spokesman Gideon Meir about some the activities of diaspora support groups like AIPAC -- then began to lead political pundits to declare the Hagel nomination "toast", as Politico's Mike Allen did. U.S.-Israel negotiator Aaron David Miller arguing Hagel should not be toast. Others like MSNBC's Chris Matthews have said that the Hagel bubble has popped. 

Then Tom Friedman put wind in the sails of the Hagel nomination by saying that he deserved to run the Department of Defense and the President should choose him. Friedman writes for the world -- but also has a strong readership among the same people who vote for Chuck Schumer -- and the Schumer-Tom Friedman divide is key here. Ultimately, Friedman beats Schumer as his constituency is larger, and Friedman has more impact on the perception of Obama's successes and victories.  Senator Schumer will ultimately agree to disagree with a Presidential pick of Hagel and deal well with the White House on other fronts. And even then, as Chuck Hagel voted for John Bolton at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, it's not so hard to imagine Schumer ultimately voting in favor of Hagel.

Presented by

Steve Clemons is Washington editor at large for The Atlantic and editor of Atlantic Live. He writes frequently about politics and foreign affairs. More

Clemons is a senior fellow and the founder of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation, a centrist think tank in Washington, D.C., where he previously served as executive vice president. He writes and speaks frequently about the D.C. political scene, foreign policy, and national security issues, as well as domestic and global economic-policy challenges.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Politics

Just In