If McCain Sinks Hagel, It Will Definitely Be Personal

Chuck Hagel's confirmation hearing to become the next Secretary of Defense did not go well, but if he fails to get the job, it won't be because of some deeply held foreign-policy principle. And the best evidence rests with one man: John McCain.

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Chuck Hagel's confirmation hearing to become the next Secretary of Defense did not go well, but if he fails to get the job, it won't be because of some deeply held foreign-policy principle. So far, Sen. Ted Cruz and Roy Blunt have said they won't vote for him — but Cruz had said that weeks before the hearing began. Democrats need 60 votes to block a filibuster, and they might already have 57, as Slate's Dave Weigel writes. One way you can tell that several Republican senators' aggressive questioning of Hagel was about something other than policy is by looking at the fawning treatment John Kerry got in his own confirmation hearings last week. This is particularly obvious when you look at the statements of one man who sat on both panels: John McCain.

Hagel's performance was halting and defensive, and it's shocking he wasn't better prepared to answer questions he knew he'd be asked. But the substance of the questions themselves remain telling. Hagel was attacked on several issues, two of the most prominent being that he opposed the Iraq surge in 2007, and that he did not vote to designate the Iranian Republican Guard, a terrorist group. John Kerry also held both of these positions, and John Kerry sailed through his hearings. Indeed, the tone in that hearing was collegial. McCain, who got into an angry confrontation with Hagel on Thursday, said of Kerry, "I commend his nomination to you without reservation." The foreign relations committee voted unanimously to send Kerry's nomination to the full Senate, and only three senators voted against him. Hagel's nomination looks like it will be a lot more controversial.

McCain was the only Republican senator on the committees that held hearings for Hagel and Kerry. By comparing the performances, you get a sense of how much the personal has become political for McCain. McCain and Hagel used to be good friends. But they became estranged when they held opposite views on the Iraq surge. Earlier this month, as the initial controversy over President Obama's nomination of Hagel to the Pentagon brewed, one of McCain's 2008 advisers told The New York Times that McCain "takes policy disputes very, very personally." In Hagel's hearing, McCain demanded Hagel say whether history had proven him wrong on the surge. Hagel would not. McCain implied that his vote depended on Hagel saying he was wrong. "Your refusal to answer whether you were right or wrong about is going to have an impact on my judgment as to whether vote for your confirmation or not," McCain said. These positions are very important, McCain continued: "They're not reasonable people disagreeing; they’re fundamental disagreements."

Yet McCain mentioned none of this in Kerry's hearing. In fact, McCain said Kerry's personal qualities overrode their policy differences. "I'd like to take a few moments to attest to the personal qualities that Senator Kerry would bring to the office of secretary of state, which I think are well suited to the position," McCain said. "He and I have been friends for quite a long time now. We've had our disagreements, which is unsurprising, given our political differences." Then McCain attributed his sustained friendship with Kerry to them both having served in Vietnam — something Hagel did, too! "But the friendship has endured, I believe it is based in mutual respect," McCain said. "Some observers have attributed that respect to the fact that when we were much younger, nicer and better looking men than we are now, Senator Kerry and I spent some time at the Navy's behest in a certain southeast Asian country in less pleasant circumstances than we're accustomed to in the United States Senate." Then McCain said he supported Kerry for Secretary of State based on their work together on POWs in Vietnam.

If being right on the surge was truly critical to cabinet positions related to foreign policy, why didn't it come up in Kerry's hearing? McCain testily asked Hagel whether the U.S. should intervene in another country, Syria. "More than 60,000 people have been killed in Syria. Do you believe that we should be more engaged in Syria?" he asked. "Do you think we should put — make sure that the Syrians get the weapons they need, and perhaps, establish a no-fly zone? Do you think we do?... It's been 22 months, Senator Hagel." Yet with Kerry, this line of questioning was mild. "I think you would agree with me that every day that goes by in Syria, it gets worse," McCain told Kerry. Kerry said it did. And then Kerry used the exact same reasoning to imply skepticism about intervention that Hagel did in explaining why he didn't support the Iraq surge. Here is what Hagel said about his opposition to the surge:

HAGEL: That particular decision that was made on the surge, but more to the point, our war in Iraq, I think was the most fundamentally bad, dangerous decision since Vietnam. Aside from the costs that occurred in this country to blood and treasure, aside what that did to take our focus off of Afghanistan, which in fact was the original and real focus of a national threat to this country — Iraq was not — I always tried to frame all the different issues before I made a decision on anything.

And here is what Kerry told McCain about Syria:

KERRY: But I think you would agree with me that whatever judgments you make, they have to pass the test of whether or not, if you do them, they're actually going to make things better.

MCCAIN: Absolutely.

KERRY: And you have to make a test of a cost analysis in doing that. And I mean all kinds of costs -- human life costs, treasure, affect on other countries.

A vote from the committee is expected early next week, with a full Senate decision to follow.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.