It’s too early to tell whether opposition to Obama’s floating of Chuck Hagel as a possible Secretary of Defense will spread beyond the neocons who sold the Iraq war and the Islamophobe fringe. Threats of turning the nomination into a donnybrook—one anonymous GOP aide purportedly threatened a national campaign to smear Hagel as an anti-Semite—may prove empty. Hagel is well-known personally by many senators, and it seems unlikely that they would credit the smearers rather than their own sense of the man.
But one thing ought to be clear: the nomination gives Republicans a valuable opportunity to do some much needed rebranding, and to do it without actually having to do much of anything. As Secretary of Defense, even in an Obama administration, Hagel will become one of the three or four most visible and prominent Republicans in the country. Moreover, he is an exemplary representative of a political type which used to be prominent, when the party was far stronger nationally; a type which has since become nearly invisible, to the party’s great detriment. Hagel is essentially an Eisenhower Republican—a fiscal conservative, with combat experience in war, roots in the American heartland, and an awareness that it is far easier to get into wars than get out of them. Typically, he has recently praised Eisenhower’s role during the 1956 Suez crisis, when Ike pulled the plug on an imperial grab by Britain, France, and Israel. Talk about putting daylight between America and its allies! Ike too had his enemies in the conservative movement: he was hated by the extremists—and elements of the right, as influential in their own time as the Islamophobes are today, tried to label him an agent of international communism.
Hagel is not an isolationist—indeed virtually the entire bill of indictment that Bill Kristol has brought against him rests on his purportedly excessive readiness to engage diplomatically with America’s potential enemies. He is essentially an internationalist, who believes in alliances and multilateral engagement.
This obviously is not where the base of the GOP is right now, which does much to explain why Hagel is being touted for a cabinet post in a Democratic administration, and why, after long consideration, he did not seek the Republican presidential nomination in 2008. But it seems equally obvious, or should be, that keeping the Eisenhower internationalist brand of the GOP alive and visible is something Republicans should actually want to do—if for no other reason than to give the impression that GOP foreign policy thinking has more complexity to it than one might glean from the nauseating campaign spectacle of enthusiasts for the Iraq war bidding for Sheldon Adelson’s backing. We don’t know how many voters Romney lost because of his complete inability to separate his campaign from the foreign policy failures of the last Republican administration, but I would guess it was not negligible. Republicans should remember that when they used to win presidential landslides in the last century, they did so with candidates (Eisenhower, Nixon, and Reagan) who were not afraid to negotiate with American enemies, nor to disagree with Israel. The excessive deference the party now pays to Reverend John Hagee, Sheldon Adelson, and Bill Kristol is of course ridiculous on both moral and prudential grounds. But it isn’t even good electoral politics. Hagel’s Republican friends on the Hill would do well to realize that.