Wednesday, January 04, 2006

The Nelson - Hagel Dynamic (A Diatribe)

by Kyle Michaelis
Senators Hagel and Nelson buddy-up for Sec. of Ag. Johanns' confirmation hearing
Before dedicating myself to the 2006 session of the Nebraska Legislature beginning this morning, I wanted to make a quick (*check that* - long and torturous) write-up about Nebraska's U.S. Senators, Democrat Ben Nelson and Republican Chuck Hagel, particularly a pair of votes they cast right before Congress' end-of-year adjournment.

Nelson's vote to advance and extend the PATRIOT Act, despite its most troublesome provisions, rubbed several Democrats the wrong way at Blog for Nebraska before Christmas, causing something of a pissing match between Nelson defenders and detractors amidst the voices of many who inhabit a grey area on the matter that Nelson himself could most certainly appreciate.

That Hagel should have actually supported the Democrat-led filibuster while Nebraska's actual Democrat did not is just one of a series of definite breaks from the nation's political status quo that our state seems to have in perhaps unrivaled abundance.

Hagel has also been one of the nation's most vocal (or, at least, media-savvy) critics of not only the war in Iraq but also the Bush Administration's policy towards Iran and their recently reported use of domestic spying that blatantly violates the will of Congress (and, hence, the Constitution) in the name of national security. On all these matters, Nelson has been far less forthright with what little criticism he offers, generally applauding President Bush's efforts in some tempered manner that acknowledges some need for improvement.

Nelson would likely call his contributions constructive criticism. To many Democrats, it is better-termed pandering and unearned political cover for a President who has shown almost no concern for the input of those outside his inner circle. Still, Nelson is hardly the turn-coat and Hagel far from the last reasonable Republican that some are inclined to embrace. Rather, both are artful politicians whose complete motives may be guessed at but never truly known.

Note that Nelson did vote against the recent Republican budget for its cuts to social programs because of the burden they are sure to place on the states and the unfair targeting of working families while the rich reap further tax cut rewards. On this, a bread and butter economic and social issue along which traditional differences between Democrats and Republicans actually make sense, Hagel was firmly on his party's side, Nelson following suit. In fact, rare is the instance when Hagel actually votes against his party, proving independence of the tongue does not necessarily make for independence of ones will (or, at least, the record to support it).

Nelson, more erratic in his votes, is nevertheless far more consistent in his character. He is a conservative Democrat - self-proclaimed and arguably quite rare depending on the brand of conservatism to which one subscribes. It is a label almost left to him to define as he will by his example, a luxury perhaps necessary to his continued political survival.

It seems almost funny that I've caught wind of numerous suggestions over the years that some animosity exists between Hagel and Nelson. Though it's true extent is unclear and its origin unknown (by me, at any rate), one imagines that it likely goes back to the hard-fought 1996 Senate race that saw Hagel defeat then-Governor Nelson.

From that race, I remember two hurdles Nelson wasn't able to overcome: 1)sharing the ballot with President Bill Clinton (who received less than 35% of the vote in NE against Kansas Republican Bob Dole), and 2)his 1994 campaign pledge to complete his second term as governor, which did not end until 1998. Nelson ended up winning that race in a total land-slide that likely made such a pledge totally unnecessary but, once made, the voters weren't willing to let him off the hook.

What else might have transpired in 1996 to cause ill feeling between these two men, I know not, but it certainly wasn't helped by Hagel's own staff partaking in a Republican political stunt last year to blame Nelson for the state's $134 million court settlement resulting from the decades-long Boyd County nuclear waste dump fiasco. Hagel has also been surprisingly out-spoken about the importance of his party's defeating Nelson in 2006, breaking the long-standing tradition of gentlemen's agreements not to antagonize one another (at least, when convenient) between home state senators of different partisan stripes.

Nelson hasn't really responded to Hagel's subterfuge, leaving the impression that Hagel is the one with a score to settle. Alas, not even driving Michael Dukakis' tank wearing George W. Bush's flightsuit holding Jesse Ventura's gun from "Predator" could Nelson truly break free of his "Gentle Ben" stereotype no matter how much he might like to imagine himself "the Benator", so it's sort of hard to tell how mutual their supposed grudge match is.

Hopefully, it's not really personal - even if it might seem so to observers. Perhaps Hagel simply believes replacing Nelson with a Republican is the surest way to boost his standing in the national party as he prepares for a 2008 Presidential bid. Or, he just really doesn't like the guy - who knows?

Regardless, the Nelson - Hagel dynamic is an interesting one, unlike any other in the U.S. Senate, because of the notoriety both have attained amongst activists in their respective political party. Barely a day has passed in the last three months that the Omaha World-Herald hasn't run a letter to the editor denouncing Hagel for his criticism of President Bush's foreign policy (or lack thereof). Many have told Hagel to go and become a Democrat if he won't keep his mouth shut, declaring Nelson a better Senator who more closely represents the people of Nebraska.

At the same time, for this praise that makes victory possible despite the state's enormous Republican registration advantage, Nebraska Democrats are perpetually frustrated by the conservative and cautious Nelson, whose every vote seems up-for-grabs and almost surprise when they actually defy the Republican agenda. As the #1 Democrat in the state (if not the only game in town), it must be frustrating and difficult to try to build a party and an identity around one who so often refutes the label and its connotation.

The short-term benefit of maintaining a voice in Washington D.C can't be but called into question by dangerous lack of identity when the chief Democrat doesn't more closely represent (and almost never speaks out on) the principles held most dear by the party's base. It makes turning the tide and reaching new voters a difficult if not impossible proposition.

But, Ben Nelson is Ben Nelson. From my admittedly incomplete recollection (to which I gladly invite correction), there's little evidence that he's actually changed from his days as Governor - one of the most popular governors in Nebraska history - to his current role as Senator. If he was a Democrat then, he is a Democrat now. Of course, Nelson's failure to maintain a more adequate party apparatus and build an actual farm team left the Democrats in disarray, but the fact that his victories and continued popularity have not been better utilized by others can hardly be held against him.

Similarly, Chuck Hagel is Chuck Hagel...even if he might be more "Chuck Hagel" of late, as he imagines the boldness that earns him free media putting him one step closer to the Oval Office. While in most respects a "good Republican", he is not the silent, party-line type...the empty suit with an "R" on his lapel that some might desire. The guy has opinions and - very similar to Bob Kerrey before him (despite his being on the other side of the aisle) - considers himself smart and photogenic enough that it must almost appear his duty to share them with the world.

Nebraskans have many wonderful qualities, but our politicians are not particularly known for their humility. In fact, they seem prone to self-love and ambition magnificent in scale even by politicians' standards, and voters don't seem to mind. Either we're really proud of who we are and what we offer or we might be victims of some mass insecurity that forces us to overcompensate with and be drawn towards boastfulness and delusions of grandeur. Again, who knows?

It is funny, though, that Hagel and Nelson do not have more appreciation for one another, especially when their plights are so similar in result. Of course, they have different approaches and face different lays of the land, but the response from the media and most voters is very much the same: respect (begrudging or not) for their willingness to look beyond party lines along with scorn from those who wish they'd do nothing of the sort. The standard voter, however, clamors for precisely the illusion of compromise and bipartisanship they provide. That both men are serving their own self-interests by doing so is just a peculiar sidenote that people are willing to look past in hopes for a less virulent and destructive political climate.

So different in styles, Hagel and Nelson nevertheless occupy a similar and distinctive place in America's political imagination. Perhaps that, more than anything else, is reason for why one might resent the other because his star burns less bright than it might in comparison to another. If Nelson were replaced by a loyal, unthinking Republican footsoldier, much of the heat might be off Hagel as the right-wing was satisfied by a stooge counterpart (though this sort doesn't seem likely to be satisfied until they've remade America into something decidedly un-"American" in every decent sense of that ideal).

If Nelson were even more of a standard, dye-in-the-wool Democrat, Hagel would at least stand out for his breaking free of the gags and chains of blind partisan loyalty. As is, his thunder is stolen by a Senator even more free from such binds, to the point that he almost seems bound to the will of a party whose label he does not even share...almost fitting since such is the label worn by a majority of his constituents.

That one man's outsized ambition should be shadowed by another's keen instinct for political survival (even if it does reflect, not contradict the traditionally conservative "principles" to which Nelson assumedly answers) certainly does make for a remarkable situation in Nebraska politics. What Hagel and Nelson actually think of one another may never be known (at least to the general population), but I, for one, think they probably deserve each other. One puts a check on the other, yet likely makes this state's clout even greater for it. Already, they are prone to drawing national attention Nebraska's way - just for their willingness to be different. Again, in its own way, that seems to be what Nebraskans like about them most.

Solid as Nebraska or chasing the spotlight - perhaps the key to Nebraska politics is "do it your way, do it with style" (brash and in your face or gentle with an assortment of nudges and winks - perhaps it matters not) and the people will respond.

Can you imagine what might result if they would only live up to the bipartisanship in their own relationship we like to believe they represent? If they worked together, they would be a mighty tandem, indeed. Hell, an independent Nebraska ticket in 2008 might be utterly absurd and unconstitutional (two people from the same state are not supposed to jointly serve as president and vice-president, though our current pair of Texans don't seem to care), but it's hard to believe the possibility hasn't crossed one or both of Hagel and Nelson's minds in some private moments of fancy.

To be honest, I'm sure they'd be a better duo than what we have at present (damning with faintest praise). For the little bit of electoral pull their home state has, they might even be a formidable challenge...unless that's the Nebraska in me talking. For reasons of curiousity, it's a pity I shall never see such a thing, even if politically I would be hard-pressed to give either possibile combination much consideration.

That doesn't mean the rest of the country might not like the idea. Maybe it's for the best that we can't all get along.


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