Behold Movement Conservatism's Information Disadvantage: Chuck Hagel Edition

By Conor Friedersdorf

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."

Finally, on February 12, 2013, Rubin faced facts as never before:

Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) has vowed to put a "hold" on the nomination. A fight on the floor still awaits. However, unless Democrats in the Senate get a pang of conscience or Republicans' spines stiffen, Hagel may be confirmed as early as Thursday.

So began a shift in her posts. The dubious speculation about how Hagel wouldn't make it was replaced by the notion that even if he did, he was damaged goods: "In sum, when and if Hagel gets through he will be a marginal figure, not likely to be given sensitive tasks and unable to carry weight with lawmakers. For Hagel critics and those privately fretting that he is in well over his head, there is consolation in knowing he'll be a non-player. The choice of deputy secretary of defense then will take on new importance. Who is really going to run the Pentagon?" One wonders whether Fred Hiatt will issue a correction if Hagel in fact runs the Pentagon, per usual.
 
You'd think that immediately after having so much speculation proven wrong by events Rubin would've learned her lesson and laid off the predictions, but she was back on February 14, writing that the 60-vote threshold forced by the GOP "provides an opportunity for some red-state Democrats and figures like Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) to vote for cloture (on the grounds the president should get his pick) but against the nominee, making his margin razor thin."

Why?

"From their perspective there is no reason to sacrifice their credibility, risk rubber-stamping an inept figure and support a Republican for a key Cabinet spot if Hagel has enough support to squeak through anyway with 51 votes." As it turns out, Democrats all found reasons to vote for Hagel.

As a final blow to readers trying to stay tethered to reality, Rubin gave this absurd summary of Obama's motivations: 

There is no graceful exit from the White House because President Obama doesn't give a darn whether Hagel is an incompetent fool. He's not backing down. He's going to stick it to the pro-Israel community and to Israel. He's going to stick it to the Republicans. There is no other way to read his determination to go forward with such a flawed nominee. And Democrats, unlike their Republican counterparts in the Miers nomination, don't have the nerve or the concern for the institution in which the nominee would serve to force the president's hand.

Really? There is "no other way" to read it? And yet the vast majority of observers "read it" radically differently. This is from yesterday: "Let's be clear: We have two parties: the Hagel Democrats and the pro-Israel Republicans. Only one party considers national security serious enough to place it above loyalty to the White House." To sum up, if you got all your information on this subject from Rubin, you'd have been consistently clueless about likely outcome for months on end, only to emerge at the end radically misinformed about what motivated the people involved. 

Although Rubin covered this confirmation battle as badly as anyone, she wasn't alone in misinforming readers. "Could Hagel's appointment even get through the Senate?" Alana Goodman asked in Commentary last December: 

He served there for over a decade, but he's alienated fellow Republicans over the last few years by publicly criticizing the party and joining Obama's intelligence advisory board. That's strike one, but strikes two and three against him are that he's a vocal opponent of Israel and soft on Iran...

He can't afford to lose national security Republicans and GOP leadership and pro-Israel Democrats and still get confirmed. Either Obama is so intent on nominating Hagel that he's not thinking clearly, or these stories are just meant to be a consolation for Hagel when he gets passed over for the position.

Kudos to National Review's Eliana Johnson for writing that same month with comparative prescience: "The Truth: Hagel Nomination Would Probably Get Through Senate." But Goodman was back on December 27 with "Administration Abandoning Hagel," in which she wrote, "The White House may have thought it could deal with the Israel and Iran criticism, since it gets that all the time anyway. But when Republican groups start criticizing a potential Obama nominee for having a bad record on gay rights, that's not a position the administration wants to be in."

Quoth Bill Kristol on January 7, "The pro-Chuck Hagel forces, having failed to pick up momentum from the president's announcement today, seem to be getting desperate."

Here's Goodman again on January 8:

It's hard to predict what will happen if the nomination does make it to the floor, because we don't know what will come out during the committee hearings. Hagel's entire record-his finances, board affiliations, meeting transcripts, associates, etc., etc.-will be picked over by the media and opposition researchers. He will likely have to answer uncomfortable questions during the hearings as well. There's a chance no more damaging information will be uncovered, and he'll respond to all the questions perfectly. But this is Washington. It's much more likely he'll come out looking worse in the end, not better. Senate Democrats still haven't rallied behind Hagel, while Republican opposition is growing. The longer the confirmation battle, the more potential pitfalls for Hagel -- and if there is a filibuster, which is very possible, the administration will need to secure 60 votes to get the confirmation. "If there's nothing more that comes out, they might be able to squeak him across," one senior Senate aide told me this afternoon, but noted there was "no room for error in this nomination fight."

Actually, it turns out Hagel could make lots of errors and still get confirmed. But Goodman didn't realize that on January 16, when she gave this advice to Republicans:

At this point, the Hagel fight appears to be the most winnable one for Republicans. The fact that he disavowed his past positions suggests the White House realizes the political risks of having a big, public debate over Middle East and Iran policy. Senate Democrats seem willing to support Hagel, but are they really willing to fight for him? Not just during the confirmation hearings, but also if his confirmation ends up getting blocked? I can't imagine they want this debate either, which, for Republicans, may be all the more reason to go ahead with it.

As early as February 2, Victor Davis Hanson understood that "Democrats in the majority will no doubt win the nomination." Betsy Woodruff reported days later in National Review that "Chuck Hagel is almost undoubtedly going to be the next secretary of defense. Senate GOP sources say that precious little stands in his way, despite his lackluster performance at his hearing and his deep trove of controversial statements and votes." 


But say you're the kind of conservative who thinks NR is a bit squishy. Maybe you prefer reading the guys at Powerline. "He's done," John Hinderaker confidently announced in a February 7 post titled "Time to Stick a Fork in Hagel," which concluded, "It will be interesting to see who Obama's next SecDef nominee might be."

That brings us to Andy McCarthy of National Review. On one hand, his colleague had just reported a piece with multiple Senate sources that said Hagel is "almost undoubtedly" in. Then again, an ideologue-lawyer in Minnesota said Hagel was done. "Powerline's John Hinderaker thinks former senator Chuck Hagel's nomination to be Obama's defense secretary is already dead," McCarthy wrote at National Review's The Corner. "He may be right."

"Hagel to Withdraw?" Daniel Halper asked the same day at The Weekly Standard.

More than a week later, Jonathan Tobin wrote in Commentary that "with each passing day during the Congressional recess over the next week, the Hagel deathwatch will become a bigger and bigger story." Two days later, he added that "Hagel and the White House may feel they still have the odds in their favor. But if the GOP stands its ground, it will allow Democrats who were never happy about Hagel to start edging away from an unqualified and unsuitable nominee."

Even the best political journalists muck up analysis. As much as I wish there were fewer speculative predictions in media, I'm disinclined to react harshly to folks who occasionally get stuff wrong, as I'm sure I've done at times. But the right's uneven coverage of the Hagel nomination, especially from neoconservative writers, strikes me as so outlandishly off in so many different instances that it reveals a deeper problem -- and as yet, I've made that case without even referencing the way the inaccurate "Friends of Hamas" meme spread in the conservative media ecosystem, where the site that originated it, Breitbart.com, still won't come clean.

Once again, the conservative media, where non-conservative journalists are constantly maligned, has been thoroughly outperformed on this metric: Who best equipped readers to anticipate the outcome that actually happened? That isn't the only important metric in journalism, or even the most important, but failing at it so spectacularly surely demands some introspection.

Update: Journalist Jamie Kirchick notes, via Twitter, that Tom Ricks, a non-conservative foreign-policy expert, wrote one blog post in February that pegged the chances of Hagel withdrawing at 50-50 and "growing by the day." He insists this cuts against my thesis in this piece. I disagree. I don't think Rick's piece is comparable to the ones I critique. I also think lots of journalists make occasional bad predictions; that the predictions I've documented in this piece go beyond that in frequency, implausibility, and effect on a semi-closed media ecosystem; and that if movement conservatives or neocons respond to critiques of bad journalism with the observation that they aren't the only offenders, they're correct, but missing the point.
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 - See more at: http://theweek.com/bullpen/column/239522/the-failure-of-the-anti-hagel-campaign#sthash.hL2aZnWb.dpuf
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 - See more at: http://theweek.com/bullpen/column/239522/the-failure-of-the-anti-hagel-campaign#sthash.hL2aZnWb.dpuf

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http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2013/02/behold-movement-conservatisms-information-disadvantage-chuck-hagel-edition/273548/