More on the Unfortunate Hagel Encounter

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1) Earlier today I mentioned several valuable, and in all cases downbeat, after-action reports on the dustup between former Senator Chuck Hagel and the current members of the Senate Armed Services Committee. To put the links all in once place, it's worth reading: Winslow Wheeler at Time's Battleland site, Michael Cohen in The Guardian, Matthew Duss in The American Prospect, Fred Kaplan in Slate, and John Judis in The New Republic. Plus others I'm sure I've missed. (Like Amy Davidson in The New Yorker.)

2) Here is a bonus entry by Gordon Adams in Foreign Policy. Apart from the reasons to moan about what the senators said at yesterday's session, Adams says we should worry about what they didn't say:

Putative secretary of defense Chuck Hagel had his baptism-by-fire yesterday at the Senate Armed Services Committee. It was all theater. One of its most striking features was the absence of almost any serious attention to the challenge he will actually face if he is confirmed: the management of a defense drawdown.

No senator focused on the Pentagon's long-term budget and management challenges. Not one.

3) A staff member for a former Republican member of the Senate adds this note of cheer:

Here's what bothers me about yesterday's confirmation hearing.

Say former Sen. Hagel does get confirmed.  The first bar a Secretary of Defense has to clear to be effective involves persuading people in that building across the river that he can't be pushed around.  You'll remember that Les Aspin, smart and well-connected as he was, failed to clear that bar 20 years ago.  But Gates cleared it, and so did Panetta.  Even Rumsfeld cleared it.

It will be more important for a Secretary who will have to impose budget reductions and other policy changes on the services to show he's not just a nice, thoughtful guy.  He'll need to show people in the Pentagon he can't be taken advantage of -- and also that he's strong enough to stick up for them should they come under political attack.

My sense is that Hagel didn't clear that bar yesterday.  Sure, members of the committee were unimpressive.  I don't know why people would be surprised by that.  The whole reason Hagel got this nomination, though, was that President Obama thought he'd be an effective Secretary of Defense.  Hagel's performance yesterday made me wonder whether Obama was right.

4) In the same vein, from another reader:

The 'beware what you wish for' misery index watch is next.

Hagel now knows that his tenure,while likely, is now doomed to ridicule and Senate/ House staff harassment.

That is now the true internal question.

Does he want to endure 4 years of staff to staff strife ?

10 to 15 Senate Dem staffer back stair emails to the WH is the key for the week. With the Iran whiff being the primary topic.

Secondly, if Republicans pick up Senate seats in 2014 the misery index will get pegged.

William Cohen must be grinning at this ...

5) Finally from Charlie Stevenson, former long-time Senate staffer and general expert in defense policy, this summary:

The Republican Senators seemed to be trying to bloody Hagel's nose as a surrogate for Obama's. They performed typically -- McCain especially. [I remember how he called the Joint Chiefs of Staffs liars in the late 1990s when they were unwilling to say Clinton's defense budget left America weak.] They acted as if Hagel would have the final say on policy questions, most of which would for sure be decided by the President. In other words, they were grandstanding. They had no strong argument against Hagel, just a thousand cuts of little misstatements from his past.

Hagel wasn't as crisp or clever or self-assured as I expected. He may not have realized how tough it is to be on the receiving end of TV-conscious Senators. He may also have thought that prior friendships would still count in this age of hyper-partisanship and after he became an apostate Republican.

I still think he can win a majority vote if it's taken soon. But if Republicans want to delay a vote with a threatened filibuster, they might reach a tipping point where the White House and Senate Democrats give up.

I also still think that Hagel will (and should be) confirmed. But his situation looks worse now than it did a few days ago.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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