Chuck Hagel's Biggest Problem: He's Like President Obama

Former Senator Chuck Hagel (National Journal)

By nominating Chuck Hagel to be his Defense secretary, President Obama is putting forward an aloof contrarian who doesn't suffer fools--a striving politician who considers himself above politics. Hagel's intellectual arrogance angers party colleagues, raising suspicions about what he really stands for, as well as doubts about whether he's a team player.

In other words, Obama has picked a man very much like himself. Hagel is Obama in a GOP jersey.

That may be the biggest reason why Hagel's confirmation in the Senate, while likely, will not be easy.

A decorated Vietnam War veteran and two-term senator from Nebraska who now chairs the Atlantic Council, a respected nonpartisan foreign-policy group, Hagel is unquestionably qualified. But he has many detractors who are aggressively parsing his record.

Republicans question his support for Israel, his commitment to denying Iran nuclear weapons, and his desire to sustain Pentagon spending. Democrats are pointing to insensitive remarks about gays that Hagel made more than a decade ago.

Obama's liberal allies are wondering why Obama would bypass other qualified nominees to pick a fight over Hagel. "The White House better mobilize the troops to defend Hagel because his critics are coming for him," said Democratic strategist Chris Kofinis, "and the last thing the president needs to waste political capital on is this fight--especially when you've got much bigger ones coming down the pike."

Here are four reasons why Hagel is worth the fight to Obama:

  1. As a Republican who criticized President Bush's policy in Iraq and supported the Afghanistan war, Hagel gives Obama cover to pull troops out of Afghanistan.
  2. As a Republican who in 2011 called the Pentagon budget "bloated," Hagel gives Obama cover to slash military spending, and to redirect money to deficit reduction and investments in Democratic policies.
  3. As a Republican who questioned the validity of unilateral sanctions against adversaries like Iran, and who spoke against knee-jerk acquiescence to Israel, Hagel gives Obama room to maneuver against Tehran.
  4. As a Republican maverick with little goodwill inside the GOP caucus, nominating Hagel is a stiff finger in the eye of Obama's intractable rivals.

The final and perhaps most significant reason: Obama likes Hagel. Indeed, the president might see a lot of himself in the former senator.

And that could be a problem.

UPDATE: Readers pushed back on the thesis and asked a ton of smart questions, so I followed up with this post: "The Perils of  Being Aloof.