Hagel Agonistes

The marathon Hagel confirmation hearing is finally over, nine long and occasionally excruciating hours after it began. It ended just like it started, with a barrage of harsh Republican criticism of Hagel’s positions on Israel and Iran and some fairly half-hearted Democratic attempts to defend him. Bottom line: Hagel didn’t say anything that will doom his own nomination, but also didn’t say anything that will guarantee he gets confirmed.
I covered the Gates and Panetta confirmation hearings, and the differences with the Hagel session were striking. Gates scored points with his mastery of small details and blunt candor – asked if the U.S. was winning in Iraq, he memorably said “no, sir” — and Panetta scored points with a confident tone and a disarming sense of humor. They both seemed like the smartest men in the room, and senators from both parties deferred to them accordingly.Hagel seemed tentative from the get-go, and things didn’t get better over time. He’d spent weeks locked in a small office suite at the Pentagon to prepare for questions about his controversial past statements about Israel and Iran, but still seemed to be taken off guard by a bunch of them. Hagel stammered in some of his answers and regularly said that he didn’t remember the context of his remarks or what had been happening in the Middle East when he made them.
That was a fair defense in many cases – GOP lawmakers asked him about statements from as far back as 1998 — but a rather weak one in others. Lindsey Graham, brought up the second half of infamous “Jewish lobby” quote and got Hagel to admit that he didn’t have any examples of senators who made bad policy choices because they were intimidated by pro-Israel groups. Hagel should have known the question was coming, and he should have had a better answer.
The other thing that stood out to me was Democrats’ almost complete lack of enthusiasm in defending Hagel against those attacks. Kirsten Gillinbrand lobbed softballs that allowed Hagel to insist he was fully committed to Israel’s security, and Joe Manchin repeatedly praised Hagel’s war record. But none of the Democrats really went to bat for Hagel or did much to shield him from the barrage of harsh questions about Israel and Iran. They’ll almost certainly give him their votes, but grudgingly.
The final issue was the optics. Americans had spent weeks hearing criticism about Hagel, and today was his first chance to change the narrative. I don’t know that he did. He misspoke a bunch of times – most notably when he said the Obama administration’s policy was to contain Iran’s nuclear program, but then had to clarify that its policy was actually to prevent Tehran from ever getting a bomb — and had a hard time disavowing statements that were genuinely critical of Israel. He is an intelligent and accomplished public servant, but he didn’t always come across that way today.
The obvious, $64,000 question is whether Republicans are so emboldened by the hearing that they manage to block his nomination. I wouldn’t have thought that was possible going into the hearing. Coming out of it, I think Hagel’s past positions on on Israel and Iran — whether or not he was right substantively — means the GOP might actually be able to muster the votes to filibuster him. The Hagel hearing wasn’t a disaster for the White House. But it was also far from a win.