Behold Movement Conservatism's Information Disadvantage: Chuck Hagel Edition

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His confirmation was widely anticipated. Yet Jennifer Rubin and other neocons repeatedly published analysis that led their readers astray.

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Richard Bloom

When Chuck Hagel was confirmed Tuesday as the secretary of defense, garnering 58 Senate votes from 52 Democrats, four Republicans, and two independents, most political observers were unsurprised. President Obama began this process with a comfortable Democratic majority in the Senate. The executive branch is generally afforded wide latitude in its cabinet selections. As Dan Drezner argued in a January 18 piece in Foreign Policy, "The moment Chuck Schumer endorsed Hagel's selection, this ballgame was over. No Senate election two years from now will hinge on this confirmation vote because -- just to remind everyone for the nth time -- voters don't care about international relations." By January 28, Roll Call was reporting that so far, "Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin said that he has not counted a single Democratic 'no' vote on the question of whether former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel should be confirmed as Defense secretary."

As January ended, Daniel Larison was declaring the anti-Hagel campaign failed, explaining in The Week that "despite the concerted efforts of a few outside Republican interest groups and a steady stream of hostile coverage from conservative media outlets, Hagel has received the public support of numerous former national security officials, diplomats, and retired military officers, as well as securing endorsements from several senators even before his hearing began." It appeared that, at the very worst, Hagel would go through with unanimous support from Democrats, and the presumption from the very beginning that he'd be confirmed would be vindicated.

But Americans who get their news from anti-Hagel conservatives discovered Tuesday that much of the analysis they've long been fed on this subject left them as misinformed about the likely course of events as they were about Mitt Romney's prospects for victory during Election 2012. Of course, a single nomination battle isn't nearly so consequential as a presidential election. This is nevertheless another reminder for the rank-and-file on the right: Demand better from the journalists whose work you patronize, or remain at an information disadvantage relative to consumers of a "mainstream media" that is regularly outperforming conservative journalists.

During the election, Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post was the the quintessential example of a conservative writer letting what she wanted to happen affect her take on what was happening. Sadly, she did her readers the same disservice in the Hagel fight. Her opposition to the former Nebraska senator is grounded in earnest disagreement with his approach to foreign policy. She is a hawkish neoconservative in the model of Bill Kristol. Hagel is not. That she constantly argued against his confirmation is fine. 

But Rubin's distaste for Hagel has caused her to make a series of dubious assertions about the likelihood of his being nominated and confirmed to the cabinet post that he's just now secured. "If Obama's pick for ambassador to Syria couldn't get through the Senate, how would Hagel?" she asked in August 2010, when Hagel's name was mentioned for the Pentagon job. "Maybe this is a trial balloon. If it's more than that, it will go over like a lead one." (That appeared in Commentary, before she moved to her Washington Post perch.)

Skip ahead to December 2012. As rumors swirled that Obama would finally nominate Hagel, Rubin, who didn't want him to do so, kept speculating that he probably wouldn't. On December 18, Rubin wrote that Obama was inclined to nominate Michele Flournoy instead, and that Democratic concerns over Hagel were "sure" to "accelerate that movement." On December 19, she reported that "the anybody-but-Chuck-Hagel buzz is growing louder. Part of this is no doubt attributable to nervous Democrats." The day after that, her post was titled, "6 Ways You Know Chuck Hagel Is in Trouble." In a separate post that day, Rubin all but declared Hagel dead:

Hagel's fate was likely sealed today when the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, which raised loads of cash for President Obama, called Hagel's remarks "unacceptable" and suggested he'd have a hard time serving in government with his negative views of gays. Frankly this sounds like the Democrats are now trying to off-load Hagel with tips to sympathetic journalists about his anti-gay record... I suspect along with the eggnog and mistletoe, Hagel will disappear after the holidays.

On December 21, Rubin wrote that "it is unlikely that a Hagel nomination could obtain 60 votes for cloture and confirmation. Moreover, now that such a prominent figure has spoken out, other senators are likely to follow."

January 4, 2013: "Chuck Todd is reporting that as many as ten Democrats may vote against Hagel, making his confirmation a shaky proposition at best."

January 7, 2013: "Plainly, a number of Senate Democrats do not want to vote for Hagel, and their votes combined with GOP votes could defeat him on an up-or-down vote. 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?"

Neither!

From the same day: "Late Sunday night David Axelrod finally began a defense of Hagel on Twitter, blithely declaring there was no reason for concern. But Hagel's record is replete with anti-Israel votes and language antagonistic toward Jews. Denying there are any issues is a sure fire way to see the nomination go under." Yet the denials happened and the nomination succeeded.

Another January 7 post: "If the hearings becoming a feeding frenzy with GOP senators nailing Hagel on his views and past comments, plenty of Democrats have left themselves room to walk away (and can probably count on the White House to pull him)." Nope, Obama didn't pull him.

Here's a January 9 prediction of Democratic defections:

Most of the other 54 Democratic senators wake each morning seeing a future president in the mirror, and they know all too well how risky it will be to cast a vote for a figure like Hagel. Yes, the pressure from the White House will be intense, but the vote on Hagel (like the vote on the Iraq war or on Supreme Court judges) may be one of the most important of their careers. In other words, Schumer faces the very real possibility that other Democrats may break against Hagel, seizing the limelight and his sentry post.

On January 13, Rubin wrote that Senator Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, "would have to sublimate his views on Israel, Iran and especially Cuba and cede his role as a Democratic Senate leader for a tough-minded national security policy if he rolls over for the president's nominee. Aside from boosting a lame-duck president, why would he want to do that? We'll find out soon."

  • January 14: "A yes vote is going to be mighty hard to justify to those outside of anti-Israel, Iran-regime-sympathizing circles."
  • January 15: " If this is the best he is going to do, Hagel's nomination is in deep trouble .... I suspect Hagel's letter will satisfy few, if any, critics and raise new questions about his intellectual consistency and candor."
  • January 17: "Hagel is not going to get past the Armed Services Committee, let alone the entire Senate, without an exhaustive look at all parts of his record -- his words, his votes, his views, his judgment and his conduct with subordinates." Actually, he made it, despite continued calls for more information.
  • January 20: "The hardscrabble anti-Hagel forces have made big strides in surfacing concerns about Chuck Hagel and keeping his confirmation as defense secretary in doubt."
  • January 31: "Hagel is sinking his own nomination. Will any Democrats throw up their hands and refuse to pretend he is credible and competent? Maybe. But every single Republican - any fair person not under the thumb of the White House, really - has more than enough reason to oppose and block the nomination."
  • February 2: "Republicans have every reason to oppose him, indeed the obligation to do so. If they do not stop him, they will have enabled an entirely inappropriate person to head our military at a particularly dangerous time. Will they do it? After yesterday's Hagel debacle, they just might."

On February 6, when a Hagel vote was postponed, Rubin advanced one of her most implausible theories yet. "What is unclear is whether this is a somewhat choreographed maneuver whereby the White House, the Senate and Hagel can all end this," she speculated. "Not unlike Harriet Miers, whose nomination to the Supreme Court ended when the White House could not provide documents covered under executive privilege, this gives all sides a chance to end what has been a disastrous nomination." Yeah, it turns out that wasn't happening.

  • February 8: "The White House insists that everything is on track. But really?" Yep.
  • February 10: " ... much more qualified and confirmable nominees are circling overhead as if waiting for a stalled aircraft to be removed from the runway so they can land."
  • February 11: "When a Democratic insider and top adviser to President Obama like Stephanie Cutter laughs on the Sunday shows at the prospect of defending Chuck Hagel, you know things are not going well. She essentially said that the disastrous hearing doesn't matter." In fact, it didn't change the outcome.

That same day, in a post titled "Hagel Twists in the Wind," Rubin speculated that maybe Obama was trying to get rid of Hagel without seeming to do so, offered suggestions, and concluded, "There are probably others tactics for dumping Hagel, unless the administration is serious about putting a dullard who can't be trusted to go out in public in charge of our national security."

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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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