The Republican Party is now at a crossroads. Over the last decade moderate Republicans have felt increasingly out of place in its ranks. If the GOP confirms Hagel, it could bolster the idea of a ‘big tent’ Republican Party. A GOP-led rejection of a Republican war hero with impeccable centrist credentials, however, could well be a fatal blow to that concept, along with some of the party’s longest and most successful traditions.
There is a third possibility that hasn’t received much attention: Hagel could be confirmed over the opposition of a very large number of Senate Republicans. That’s an acceptable outcome for the administration and the country, but it would sabotage any chance that Republican leaders would come to their senses on military and foreign policy matters in the short term. It would still represent a pointed rejection of Hagel and his views by perhaps as much as half of the Senate GOP, and it is likely that many of the party’s youngest and newest Senators would be voting nay. Ted Cruz has already declared his opposition, and it would be genuinely surprising if Rubio didn’t end up voting the same way. Unfortunately, opposing Hagel seems to be something that many hawkish Republicans believe they have to do in order to maintain their hawkish credentials, and the more ambitious hawks in the Senate might want to distinguish themselves by being as vocal and obnoxious in their opposition to Hagel as they can. That doesn’t bode well for the immediate future of Republican foreign policy thinking.
Considering that confirmation votes for recent Secretaries of Defense have normally been unanimous or near-unanimous in their support of the nominee, even 15 or 20 Republican nays would be remarkable statement of hawkish intransigence. There could be 65 or more yeas in favor of Hagel’s confirmation, and confirmation still seems very likely. However, it’s easy to imagine a scenario in which there are so many Senate Republicans opposed to Hagel that they will inflict additional needless damage on the party’s reputation in spite of the confirmation.
The campaign against Hagel has already done further substantial damage to the party by demonstrating how committed so many Republicans still are to aggressive and confrontational policies. Keeping the military budget excessively large and promoting hawkish foreign policy appear to be among the only things that Republican elites won’t seriously question, and most movement conservatives appear to be just as ready as always to cheer their leaders on as they lead them deeper into the political and policy wilderness. Meanwhile, the Hagel appointment and the reaction to it have encouraged realists and conservatives that supported Obama and/or opposed Romney on foreign policy and military spending grounds to believe that they were right all along. Leon Hadar cites the Hagel nomination, and considers the appointments Romney might have made:
Consider this post-Romney victory counterfactual: president-elect Romney nominates John Bolton as his next Secretary of State (after the neocons veto his first choice, Bob Zoellick) and Joe Lieberman as his Pentagon chief (with the Democrats less hostile to this “bipartisan” nominee than the Republicans are in their opposition to the selection of Hagel).
The last few weeks of the smear campaign against Hagel, which has also been directed against sanctions and war skeptics in general, have given these realists and conservatives that much less incentive to take the risk of supporting a Republican candidate in the future. A future Republican nominee was always going to face a steep uphill battle to convince the public to trust him on national security and foreign policy issues, and the hostility to Hagel from members of his own party makes that battle more difficult than it would have already been.