Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Chuck Hagel Highlighted in NEWSWEEK's Presidential Hypothesis

by Kyle Michaelis
The Washington Post has been very good to Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel over the years, from its editorial pages giving him a national platform, to long-time columnist David Broder's consistent praise, and even in its regular coverage, where a certain affinity for Hagel and his brand of conservatism has often crept into the Post's reporting.

One can assume that Hagel has been good to the Washington Post as well. A politician has plenty of ways to build relationships with a newspaper and its reporters, whether by providing choice quotes, easy access, or even the occasional leak. Considering that Hagel lived in the Washington D.C. area for nearly two decades, working on Capitol Hill and building connections in political circles and the private sector, it's entirely possible the intelligent and ambitious Hagel's ties to the Washington Post go back even before being elected a U.S. Senator in 1996.

So, it doesn't surprise that Hagel's supposedly waning Presidential ambitions are being trumpeted in this week's NEWSWEEK, my personal favorite of the news-weeklies and probably the farthest reaching outlet in the Washington Post's media empire. Not only is there a featured article that contrasts Hagel with Sen. John McCain on the Iraq war but also a column by Jonathan Alter specifically making the case that Hagel is the more attractive - perhaps most attractive - candidate for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination.

First, McCain vs. Hagel on the war:
McCain, a Republican from Arizona, was a Navy bomber pilot, shot down and imprisoned by the North Vietnamese for five and a half years. He has, he sometimes says, "more scars than Frankenstein." Hagel, a Republican from Nebraska, was an Army grunt in Vietnam who won two Purple Hearts and still has shrapnel in his chest. Both men have seen the face of war up close. But on the question of the Iraq war, they are almost mirror opposites.

Hagel is "obsessed" with the war in Iraq, says his brother Tom, who served with him in Vietnam. "You can't have a conversation with him without this coming up." During Christmas, Hagel looked "markedly older and grayer than when I saw him this summer down at the beach," says Tom. In an interview with NEWSWEEK last week, Hagel teared up when he began talking about a Purple Heart ceremony he had attended in August in Lincoln, Neb. "You're sitting there thinking, Was this a waste?" said Hagel, who voted for the original congressional resolution backing the war despite raising serious doubts about whether the invasion made sense. He added, somewhat uncomfortably, that at times he wonders whether he has done enough to try to stop the war.

Hagel is not pushing for "Out Now." But he is almost angrily dismissive of the idea of sending an additional 10,000 to 20,000 troops to Iraq. "Are we going to pacify Baghdad?" he asks. "Are we going to break the militia's stronghold? Are we going to use these troops to propel or force a settlement between the Shias and the Sunnis? What's the objective of it? I will guarantee that there's going to be a lot more American casualties. And there's going to be a lot more animosity by the Iraqis." The idea that the Iraqis will respond only to more troops, he says, is "complete folly, unless you're going to kill all the Iraqis"....

Hagel and McCain are likely to be increasingly prominent spokesmen for their opposing views on Iraq. McCain is almost surely running for the Republican nomination for president, and Hagel has often been mentioned as a candidate, though he says he has yet to decide if he is running. Both men will be heard from early and often as the debate on Iraq moves to Capitol Hill this winter....

The president seems determined to defy his detractors, not to mention popular opinion. This week Bush is expected to announce a "New Way Forward" on Iraq that will call for more troops to try to bring order and political stability to Baghdad...To Bush's many critics, like Hagel, the new Iraq strategy adds up to a waste of more American lives. To Bush's smaller and dwindling band of supporters, like McCain, failure in Iraq is unthinkable. And if duty requires more sacrifice, then so be it....

The differences between Hagel and McCain transcend their war experiences. Hagel is the classic citizen-soldier, in a tradition that goes back to George Washington and to ancient times. The ideal is the Roman general Cincinnatus, who left his prosperous farm to rescue the Roman republic—but then returned to domestic life when the fighting was done....

Hagel has a long, sad face, one side of which was seared by the flash of an exploding enemy mine almost four decades ago. But he is almost gleeful when he talks about the coming debate on Iraq. He thinks Congress will awaken from its passivity and begin questioning how Bush is spending blood and treasure on Iraq. "The administration is going to be forced to come up and explain, 'Where is the money going?' " says Hagel.

He rejects the notion that the newly Democratic-controlled Congress will shy away from cutting off at least some of the funding for the war. (The somewhat cynical view on Capitol Hill is that the Democrats will let Bush have the money—and also the responsibility for a failed policy.) He foresees Congress's agreeing to pay for existing force levels—but not to send more troops. The White House, he says, can no longer bully Republican members into submission. "The Republican Party has to go through an election next year, the president doesn't," says Hagel. "There are a lot of Republicans in this conference that are very scared."

McCain, needless to say, is not one of them. He plans to push back...Both McCain and Hagel are clearly girding for battle. For these two men, the fighting is never really over.
The entire article is worth a read. Although Hagel doesn't get a cool nickname like McCain (the "American samurai"), a man couldn't buy this of sort of press, especially its likening him to George Washington and a near-mythic hero of the Roman Republic. If suddenly finding himself Senator Cincinnatus isn't enough ego-stroking to push Hagel into the presidential race, he might live up to that legend after all.

Sweetening the pot, though, is Alter's column, which Hagel's Political Action Committee has jumped on - sending it via e-mail to supporters and splashing it across its webpage - in what seems a strong indicator that Hagel will be running for President. Here's the gist of McCain vs. Hagel for President:
Let's try an elementary thought experiment for Republican Primary voters....

One Republican — we'll call him "Candidate A" — has among the highest support levels for President George W. Bush's conservative agenda in the Senate. He championed the president's 2001 tax cut, which many Republicans believe is the litmus test of today's GOP. After initially voting to give Bush the authority to go to war, he became an early and outspoken critic of the Iraq policy, a view now endorsed not just by the American public and Democrats but by Republicans as well.

Republican "Candidate B" has the inverse position. He opposed Bush's big tax cuts, one of only two Republicans in the Senate to do so (the other being Lincoln Chafee). And on Iraq he is one of the main advocates of the "surge," a plan to "win" the war with a modest influx of troops, though even many military experts say the idea won't work.

You would think that Candidate A would be a strong favorite for the nomination and Candidate B destined for political oblivion. But no. Candidate A, Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, is seen as damaged goods, with little chance to be nominated. Candidate B, Arizona Sen. John McCain, is now the front runner.

The explanation is the GOP tradition of primogeniture. Since the 1950s, Republicans, unlike Democrats, have given the nomination to their firstborn son — the guy whose "turn" it is. That's McCain....

Hagel, by contrast, seems lost. After John Kerry favorably mentioned Hagel's skepticism about the Iraq war in one of his 2004 debates with Bush, he became persona non grata in his party. As recently as six months ago, any Republican lawmaker who didn't back the president on the war was in deep trouble.

But that was then. Supporting Bush on Iraq today is a liability, not an asset...Six months from now, any Republican who opposed the tax cuts but champions Bush's disastrous Iraq policy is going to have some explaining to do in early debates. When Rush Limbaugh says after the midterms that he is sick and tired of "carrying water" for Bush, Chuck Hagel is not going to be run out of the party for refusing to carry water.

For ordinary Republicans, tax cuts are an article of faith. Backing a president in a failed war is not. And Hagel's doubts about the war have more weight because of his heroic combat experience in Vietnam. In a GOP debate, McCain would not be able to use his military experience as a trump card on Hagel. But Hagel and the others would score heavily on McCain for opposing the tax cuts — even though McCain was brave and right to have done so.

The most stunning thing about the Republican campaign so far is the vacuum on the right. While McCain, Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney (a moderate Republican until five minutes ago) battle over the centrists in the party, the conservative base that actually determines the nomination remains forlorn....

[G]overnors, who normally make the strongest presidential candidates, seem a little irrelevant this time around. They aren't likely to sound as credible as senators on the nuances of Pakistani politics or the readiness of the Third Infantry Division. There's more conventional wisdom that's in danger of cracking, too. Pooh-bahs in both parties have convinced the candidates that they have to raise $100 million this year to be competitive. This is nonsense in the Internet age, peddled by consultants who need that booty for their own pockets...In presidential politics, money is an effect — it follows quickly the momentum that's generated in the rough and tumble of the "free media" campaign.

Chuck Hagel might not run. But if he does, Candidate A would be formidable. It's the issues, stupid.
There's definitely some truth to Alter's reading of the Republican field. Giuliani doesn't have a prayer for the nomination and McCain's gamble on the Iraq war - where the stakes are soldiers' lives - could just as easily be the death of his campaign as it could have its intended effect of locking-up his presumed front-runner status. Other than that, the field is wide open, and Hagel would bring some intriguing possibilities to the race.

No doubt about it, Hagel's experience on both the Intelligence and Foreign Relations Committees, not to mention his service in Vietnam, would be incredible assets on the campaign trail. And, addressing Hagel's lack of financial resources, money does have a way of following hype in presidential politics, with the latter quickly taking care of the former but the former not necessarily translating into the latter.

The one hiccup for Hagel by this equation is that he might have to actively combat the ill will of Republicans who only know him (and resent him) for his outspokeness against Bush's Iraq policy. That takes more money than a lowly governor starting from scratch with the general public...although free media like this and the continued deterioration of the situation in Iraq could go a long way in leveling the playing field or even putting Hagel at an advantage.

Of course, Alter fails to take into account the fact that Hagel's being the most ardent supporter of the Bush Agenda (including Bush's tax cuts) in the U.S. Senate is not much of an asset when Bush has an approval rating of about 30%. Imagining this is all a symptom of the Iraq war is utter nonsense, even if such would be ideal for Hagel's purposes because it's one of the few issues on which he's staked an independent identity.

On Iraq, Hagel can make a consistent and powerful emotional appeal even if his voting record does somewhat strain its intellectual credibility. That still leaves eight years of Bush's unpopular and failed agenda for which Hagel can be held liable in the general election. But, in true referendum style, that's going to be the case for whomever the Republicans nominate - including McCain, who's most sheltered from Bush's full agenda as a 2000 challenger even as he's become the most exposed on Bush's Iraq policy.

It's hard to say whether Hagel is a legitimate contender in his own right or whether he's just convenient for illustrating McCain's weaknesses. The problem for Hagel is much the same as that faced by former Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey in 1992. Although a very intriguing candidate on paper - a perfect "Candidate A" for political columnists to wax philosophically about and to dream up hypothetical campaigns - there's a political reality that isn't so neat and easy . . . or, at least, hasn't been in the past.

Hagel, like Kerrey before him, offers some great repackaging of a tired product that seems like it should be easy to market. But, there's "New Coke" quality to this sort of thought exercise - this "seems like" - whereby a great idea on paper that appeals to an elite class who are trying their best to figure out what appeals to the masses should immediately be distrusted.

One day, though, hype and political chatter might be enough to pave the way for victory. With the rise of blogs, the culture of celebrity, and so many forms of instantaneous communication, who knows, it might just be today. If so, Hagel certainly has a shot in 2008 and - to be honest - I think he'd be a fool not to take it.

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Blogger Kyle Michaelis said...

Then again, as a writer and a not disinterested political observer, I won't deny an element of curiosity and self-amusement in my encouraging Hagel to run for President. A fuller, more honest, probably more volatile debate of the Iraq War is only likely to happen in the Republian primary with Hagel as a candidate. I'd also say the general dynamics of the race are simply more intriguing, more complex, and more unknowable with Hagel taking a seat at the table.

Anonymous NE Voter said...

Great post. I agree that Hagel would be viable in the Republican presidential primaries. However, I don't believe he will enter the race.

There are several reasons why I think Hagel will not enter the race.

First, the money. Hagel has been an effective fundraiser and has distributed funds to fellow Repubs, how should I put this, liberally. However, it is unlikely that he would be able to raise the kind of money he would need to keep up with the likes of McCain and Giuliani.

Second, the constituency. We political junkies know that Hagel has an extremely conservative voting record. However, the Repub. base voters usually demand absolute fealty to the conservative agenda. This includes lip service. These voters typically reject those who criticize Bush or his policies. McCain understands this: he has spent the last two years building a media record of loudly mouthing the conservative line. Hagel, I believe, is too proud to beg.

Third, Hagel is an opportunist at heart. He goes for the sure thing.

Although I believe that Hagel will not enter the race, I do believe he will run a shadow campaign for Veep, trotting alongside the contestants during the primary season and pontificating from his usual perch on the Sunday morning news programs.

Meanwhile, the Omaha World-Hagel will be there, faithfully humping his leg.

Bottom line: Hagel will be on the Republican ticket as the nominee for vice president.

Anonymous Dave Sund said...

Hagel would prove a useful surrogate for Democrats in the Republican primary on the issue of Iraq. But I think his outspoken nature on Iraq is exactly why he can't win the Republican nomination. There still is a significant amount of Republicans committed to the idea of Bush's war. And very few of the Republican primary voters are going to be the ones who are upset with Bush.

Hagel is the most electable Republican in the field. Actually, he may be the only electable Republican in the field. Iraq is still going to be a huge issue in 2008, and McCain is tying himself closely to Bush's disastrous policy.

Blogger Kyle Michaelis said...

NE Voter-

You capture the flip-side with great clarity and might be spot-on with your reading of Hagel and his intentions. But, without running for the top of the ticket and using that as a platform to regain credibility with Republican voters, I question whether Hagel really makes a very attractive option for Vice-President.

With Hagel's well-known penchant for putting himself front and center, the sensitive political ego of whoever gets the GOP nomination is also likely to fear being upstaged by Hagel - especially in the press.


You know as well as I do that there are far too many factors in play to call '08 in the Democrats' favor. Even on Iraq, there's the possibility that McCain could still sell the American people on his Nixon-like strategy for "honor and victory." After all, who doesn't like those?

Besides, McCain will always be able to fall back on the idea that there should have been more troops in Iraq from the beginning, giving him separation from Bush's policies but maintaining his supposed principles. Never underestimate the American people's willingness to believe whatever they damn well please, especially when its coming from the mouth of a former POW that the media will lionize at every opportunity.

People still WANT to believe we're doing good in Iraq. Bush is just too incompetent and the facts are too strong to make that case effectively. McCain is making a gamble that, with his record and just a few signs of progress, he can do just that. Though difficult to fathom, I won't discount the possibility.

An opinion on the 2008 presidential races is hardly worth having until late summer. But, we should know the legitimate contenders before then. My point is only that Hagel is well-positioned to be competitive if he's willing to work for it. From there, many factors are still beyond his control and our speculation.


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