Chuck Hagel's Identity Crisisby Kyle Michaelis
Much has been made of Sen. Chuck Hagel's Hamlet-like ruminations of his political future that have become deliberately more vague and indecipherable as his day of reckoning approaches.
Understanding Hagel's position of pre-eminence in the Nebraska Republican Party, longtime observers of the Nebraska political scene have had a hard time taking seriously rumors of Hagel leaving the Republican Party. Although he's been quite open with his displeasure at the current state of the GOP - admitting to Newsweek that this is not the Party he originally joined during the Vietnam War - talk of Hagel actually changing affiliation has always seemed the stuff of Internet hype and raw speculation . . . until now.
The Washington Post's political blogger, The Sleuth, reports (with thanks to Leavenworth Street for the heads-up):
Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) returned the love last night to his good friend Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.), helping the underdog Democratic presidential hopeful kick off his book tour.Of course, the report suggests that Hagel may have been speaking in jest, but I don't think a lot of Republicans are likely to find this particular "joke" very funny. In fact, it's hard to imagine how Hagel's statement could be taken as anything but a clear indicator that he really has though about leaving the party in which he is Nebraska's titular head.
Biden, during the CNN-YouTube debate last month, said he would pick Hagel if he had to choose any Republican to be his running mate. So it was fitting that last night Hagel introduced Biden at a book party hosted by a nominally bipartisan group of senators.
Looking out over a sea of Democratic faces, Hagel, according to attendees, joked, "Hell, I don't know what party I belong to any more."
Every joke has a hint of truth to it. When asked point blank earlier this summer whether he would leave the Republican Party, Hagel seemed dimissive of the notion - although he refused to completely rule out an independent bid for the Presidency or Vice Presidency. Now, one almost has to take this comment as crossing over from keeping his options open to active consideration.
Still, the idea of Hagel leaving the Republican Party remains almost utterly ridiculous for those of us in Nebraska who know his voting record and who witnessed the way he pushed for cookie-cutter Republican Pete Ricketts' election in 2006. If he isn't happy with the direction of the Republican Party, how could Hagel have ever campaigned so vigorously for Ricketts - a man whose entire campaign was waged in defense of protecting the Republican status quo that Hagel now claims to be raging against?
This is why it's hard to take Hagel seriously. Still, he's an intelligent man who seems to understand which way the winds are blowing politically. The fact that he'll talk so openly - even making jokes - about leaving the Republican Party is a very bad sign for its future fortunes - certainly on the national level and perhaps even here in Nebraska. A Republican Party that doesn't have room for Chuck Hagel - a man who won re-election in 2002 with over 80% of the vote - has to have lost a lot of those voters along the way.
Jon Bruning and other pretenders-to-the-throne are making their moves for Hagel's Senate seat by going after the hardcore Republican base that feels betrayed by Hagel. But, what of all the Nebraskans who aren't simple-minded partisans? What of the voters who have voted for Hagel in the past and share his concern about the monstrous and soulless state of the the modern Republican Party? What becomes of these voters in 2008? They already rejected Pete Ricketts in 2006 - who had Hagel's complete backing. Why would Nebraskans now flock to another generic Republican for whom the only appreciable difference is a fuller head of hair and a smaller bank account?
Chuck Hagel doesn't know what party he belongs to any more. Politically, that's a fascinating statement that opens a world of possibilities. But, probably the most important question is not what this foretells of Hagel's political future but rather how well it reflects the sentiments of the majority of Nebraska voters.
If Hagel doesn't know where he belongs, there's a lot of Nebraskans out there who have recently been voting Republican who feel exactly the same way. They've already proven their independence from the simple politics of hyper-partisanship in 2006 - by overwhelming numbers. Why shouldn't we expect them to demonstrate the same level-headed common sense in 2008?
Nebraska voters might just be waiting for a reason to vote Democratic in 2008. How foolish of us would it be if we didn't give them that chance because we failed to see Hagel's political frustration not as a personal dilemma but as representing an entire voting bloc that is up for grabs and looking for a better way?
The true power and true potential of Hagel's statement isn't what it says of his intentions. No, what's important to remember is that Chuck Hagel doesn't know what party he belongs to any more . . . and he isn't alone.