The attempt to invoke cloture this afternoon on the debate over Hagel’s nomination failed 58-40 (with the majority leader voting no in order to be able to reconsider the motion at a later time). When Hagel’s name was first floated as a possible nominee, I thought it would have been extraordinary if half that many Republicans opposed him, but I underestimated the degree to which most Senate Republicans remain bound to their party’s disastrous foreign policy record from the last decade. The absurdity of the procedural vote today was even greater because it was widely understood that some of the Senators voting against cloture today would vote for it the next time. The final vote to confirm has been delayed to make a point, but as to the point being made it remains elusive. Unless something entirely unexpected happens in the next week, Hagel will eventually be confirmed, these delaying tactics will have harmed no one but the Republicans engaged in them, and Republicans will have lost a high-profile battle that they never needed to fight. The vote this afternoon was an unmistakable sign that the chances of Republican foreign policy reform in the near term are not very good.
The most disappointing vote was Rand Paul’s decision to vote no. It was bad enough that Sen. Paul chose to side with the people who loathe the foreign policy of restraint he was describing last week, but what made it even worse is that a yes vote from Paul would have concluded this drawn-out farce of a confirmation process and allowed the Senate to vote on the nomination itself. Four other Republicans voted for cloture, and none of them had just given a speech outlining an argument for a “more restrained foreign policy.” If any Republican in the Senate should have rejected the extraordinary filibuster of a Cabinet nominee, it ought to have been Paul.
Sen. Paul could have been the deciding vote to clear the way for Hagel’s confirmation, but instead he opted to vote the other way, and the justification he gave may have been the worst of all. If Paul had some irreconcilable disagreement with Hagel on principle or policy, it would have at least made sense to vote as he did. Instead, Paul endorsed one of the worst, least credible anti-Hagel arguments of all, which is essentially the Ted Cruz argument that Hagel needs to “prove” that he is not in league with foreign governments or sympathetic with terrorists. If he ended up voting yes on the nomination, Paul could repair some of the damage with antiwar conservatives and libertarians, and he could make good on his claim to being a realist, but most of the damage will likely be permanent.
I should add that it isn’t just the Hagel vote that has alienated Sen. Paul’s potential supporters. Sen. Paul has voted for cruel, ineffective Iran sanctions, and a lot of antiwar conservatives were willing to cut him some slack on the grounds that he was still opposed to war with Iran. He offered an entirely unnecessary security guarantee to Israel, and many of his potential supporters were still willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Voting to block Hagel was the final straw for a lot of people, but it’s important to understand that this reaction is not limited to dissatisfaction with today’s vote. The decision to vote with his party to block Hagel is part of a pattern of bad calls that Sen. Paul has made in recent months, and in each of these he has ended up siding with people who hate restraint and prudence in foreign policy and who also hate Hagel because he represented some measure of both.