Reading Tea Leaves of Political Appointments Not Yet Made

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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
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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.

National Journal's Michael Hirsh read the tea leaves in a comment he got from the White House and reported that the Obama team was going wobbly on Hagel because of the line, "we are considering other candidates."  To my friend and colleague Hirsh this sounded like a comment he had received during the Susan Rice imbroglio in which an official had planted with him something along the lines that "the President was vexed between Susan Rice and John Kerry for the Secretary of State position."  To Hirsh, this seemed like a signal to Rice that the President wanted her to stand down.

The bottom line is that for those, even myself, who have argued that Hagel's nomination was still kicking, or withering, assumptions are being made about what would seem logical, what would a president faced with a neocon onslaught, lack of unanimity in the Senate, and the potential for yet another fight with the GOP (well, mostly the GOP) do when the Obama team may have thought this would be a smoother ride.

So, many are now thinking that of the two other leading candidates, Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and Michele Flournoy, who served as Under Secretary of Defense for Policy and is the former president of the Center for a New American Security, Flournoy will get the nod. 

I listened to MSNBC commentator Krystal Ball chat with show anchor Karen Finney say that it would be awesome to have Flournoy because she was a mom and had kids -- and this would be a great signal to the country to have a woman in that key position. One part of me agrees that the appointment of Flournoy would break another glass ceiling for women, but there will be questions about both of these candidate's capabilities and perspectives as well that have not been scrutinized.

What are their views on Iran? Should we have bombed yesterday? On the Bob Gates view that anyone who would commit U.S. forces to large ground wars and occupations should have his or her head examined? On the privatization of the U.S. military so that despite spending gobs more money, the number of military personnel in uniform has declined while the contractor surge has grown unabated? How does one restructure the military in an age of budget austerity? Don Rumsfeld thought through some of this in his pre-9/11 tenure. What are their views?

Senator Jack Reed and former secretary of State Colin Powell have both been mentioned as well -- but both seem equally, personally committed to keeping their names off the list of likely choices.

What I heard from my executive branch source made a lot of sense to me today. That many in the punditocracy and D.C.'s strategic class are hyperventilating about these candidates and what we think Obama will do and won't do with scant evidence or commentary from the president or his team. The fact is that the White House has been highly cryptic at best about who is on the list and how they are proceeding.

If the White House does not go with Hagel, the Obama team has a problem as they will be appearing to reject a two-time Purple Heart recipient who was nearly a candidate for president of the United States, who served as a sergeant in Vietnam, and who believes that the Pentagon must be reshaped and remodeled to deliver security to the American public on leaner budgets. Hagel is a defense cuts guy -- and the person in this job will be spending 90 percent of his time not dealing with Israelis or other governments but wrestling with generals about how to rebalance America's national security priorities from low-return wars in the Middle East and South Asia to higher-return concerns in Asia. And they'd be conceding to a lot of folks whom the president just wiped the floor with in the last election.

Michael Hirsh has also raised the obvious but neglected point that Hagel is one who got the wars right -- in that they were bad wars -- and broke ranks with his party and pal John McCain in favor of the broader American national interest. Hirsh says he should not be punished for that -- but should be rewarded.

So, if the source I spoke to is right and the media discussion has distorted what is fantasy and fact and is now quite distant from what the real process is with President Obama and Chuck Hagel, all the better. 

We are still reading tea leaves in this appointment process -- which should be more transparent, managed in the halls of Congress in a legally scripted process, and less of a nightmare for the potential nominee.

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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.

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