The Ascendant 'Smear Wing' of the Conservative Movement

The right once inveighed against "Borking" and race-baiting. In opposing Chuck Hagel, a part of its neoconservative wing is doing both.

chuck hagel full.png, an anti-Hagel website.

When Robert Bork died, many conservatives praised his scholarly output and lamented his treatment in the Senate, where Ted Kennedy warned of back-alley abortions, segregated lunch counters, and rogue police if Bork was confirmed to the Supreme Court. Writing in The Washington Post, Jennifer Rubin endorsed the idea that this was the most infamous moment in modern Senate history, writing that "Bork's name became a verb, meaning to dismember one's reputation and distort one's views for political advantage." It wasn't just unfair, she wrote, it hurt America: "The Borking of Bork was the beginning of the polarization of the confirmation process that has turned our courts into partisan war zones, resulting in more ideologically divided opinions and less intellectually adventurous nominees on the left and the right." Given Kennedy's shoddy behavior, it's wrong to feel nostalgic for him, she concluded.

I no longer have the capacity to be surprised by staggering contradictions in Rubin's writing. It is still noteworthy that, weeks later, she has this to say about Chuck Hagel's bid for secretary of defense:

If Republicans had nervy firebrands like the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, someone would rise up to declare, "Chuck Hagel's America is a land in which gays would be forced back in the closet and Jews would be accused of dual loyalty. Chuck Hagel's world is one in which devastating defense cuts become a goal, not a problem; we enter direct talks with the terrorist organization Hamas; and sanctions on Iran wither."

The Hagel nomination expected to come on Monday is so outrageous and the rationale for his nomination so weak that it becomes an easy no vote for all Republicans.

In a followup post, she ponders confirmation hearings that become "a feeding frenzy with GOP senators nailing Hagel on his views and past comments," a prospect to which she doesn't object. In another item she asks, as if these are the only choices, "Will Hagel make it to the confirmation hearing, to be shredded by disgusted Republicans and nervous Democrats, or like Harriet Miers, must excuses be made for him to depart before much damage is done?" 

Rubin's hypocrisy is but one example of an integrity problem that's driving a lot of people away from movement conservatism. Some of the disaffected are right-leaning individuals who really did think rhetoric of the sort that Kennedy employed was polarizing, immoral, and damaging to America. Unlike Rubin, they don't want to see rhetoric of that sort employed even against "the other side." 

Many more right-leaning Americans have a visceral aversion to race-baiting and frivolous accusations of bigotry. When they complained about Al Sharpton and the immorality of his most dubious rhetoric, they earnestly thought he was conducting himself in a way that no one should. It's little wonder that they're disgusted when they see the neoconservative wing of the conservative movement smearing Hagel like a conservative caricature of left-leaning race-baiters.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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