Chuck Hagel: The Sore Winner?by Kyle Michaelis
When I last devoted significant discussion to the strange dynamic between Hagel and Ben Nelson earlier this year, I remarked:
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...
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.
Well, fast forward a few months, and the national press has taken notice of the same unfortunate peculiarities in Hagel's approach to Nelson, and it makes him sound like a big baby. Last week's National Journal offers up an article with a little more insight into why Hagel continues to hold a grudge against Nelson, culminating in a zeal for his defeat this November almost Ahab-like in its intensity:
The excitement on the other end of the telephone line was palpable. In an interview with National Journal , Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., was very upbeat about Pete Ricketts, the Republican nominee challenging Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., in November. Hagel clearly has more than a passing interest in the race: His not-so-veiled message is that he will do everything he can to help defeat Nelson.
"You have the difference between a real conservative Republican and kind of a half-way, Democrat/Republican senator," Hagel said in comparing Ricketts to the moderate Nelson, who has cultivated an image as an independent operator in the Senate....
The way Hagel sees it, knocking off his former foe in this year's contest could not only ensure total GOP dominance in Nebraska, it "could very well determine whether Republicans keep control of the Senate."
Although Hagel is known as one of the Senate's most disarmingly blunt members, his open and intense desire to send Nelson packing lays bare the unusually strong tension between these two home-state senators. In the three other states represented by senators who once were electoral rivals, the dynamics are far different, far less combustible. Those six senators—Nevada Democrat Harry Reid and Republican John Ensign; Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden and Republican Gordon Smith; and South Dakota Democrat Tim Johnson and Republican John Thune--have almost gone out of their way to show that they have buried the hatchet and get along famously today. Not so with the Nebraska senators....
When Nelson was asked whether he was surprised that Hagel seems so focused on defeating him, he didn't hesitate. "No. No," he said. "It goes back to 1996. I got over losing. He never got over winning".....
Back in their 1996 race, Nelson accused Hagel of engaging in fraudulent practices in the business he founded....
Eight years later, in an interview with NJ shortly before the 2004 Republican National Convention, Hagel was obviously still angry. "That was a direct hit on your integrity, your character," he said of Nelson's charges. "It was untrue. I couldn't let that go — I came out swinging"....
"I don't hold grudges — you can't hold grudges," Hagel added. "I never have in my life. But I remember — I am not stupid."
Nelson responded that he, too, has been harshly attacked in political campaigns in the past, but after a race is over, he moves on. "I go back to the 1990 [gubernatorial] campaign, when the incumbent Republican called me everything in the book--a crook and stuff like this," he said. "You would have thought you would see my picture in the post office [on the 'most wanted' list]."
"Hey — I got over winning."
The sore winner is, indeed, a peculiar sort. Democracy is not always pretty - it is often downright stupid and ugly. But, there comes a time when a true leader must rise above bitterness, put aside the past, and get back to the business of governing.
There is no greater vindication than the people's vote. It's unfortunate that's not enough for Hagel, as he persists in seeking revenge for supposed slights now a decade-old.
It's not personal; it's politics. There's more than a bit of truth to that old adage, not as an excuse of poor behavior but as a reminder of what's truly important - what function Hagel was truly elected to perform as a politician and public servant. No one voted for Hagel's personal agenda of political retribution. Nebraskans voted for a man who was supposed to devote himself to representing their interests and to defending the Constitution.
If Hagel wants to take something personal, it should be these obligations and the many assaults against them, not some overblown outrage at offenses long-since forgotten by the voters.