He [Hagel] doesn’t — yet — seem to be animated by obvious political ambition. ~Kelley Vlahos
My colleague on the main blog seems in this part of her post to be tactfully omitting the unfortunate collapse of the Hagel ’08 boomlet, which was followed by the farce of the Bloomberg-Hagel (or was it Hagel-Bloomberg?) boomlet, after Sen. Hagel had started shooting rhetorical barbs at the administration to demonstrate his independence to his new best friends in the press, who had dubbed him, quite prematurely, as an antiwar dissenter from the White House line. As I said many, many times last year to the annoyance of some, Hagel had not yet become an opponent of the war, he eschewed the antiwar label and for intents and purposes did nothing much that would distinguish him as an opponent. Meanwhile, one will find that the intensity of Hagel’s public criticism of the adminstration tracked quite closely with the rising national unpopularity of the war. This is understandable and appropriate in its way, but hardly the stuff of heroic resistance. Many war supporters, such as John Warner and Sam Brownback, opposed the “surge” in full or in part because they thought the plan to be mistaken or misguided, so it’s not clear to me that Hagel’s great moment in speaking of footwear merchants was nearly as impressive as everyone seems to think it was.
It seems to me that, whatever his motives, the timing of Edwards’ turnaround on the war was much better than Hagel’s, since he went into opposition–indeed fierce, outspoken opposition–fairly early on. That he was doing this at least partly to rebuild his reputation in the party and prepare the way for a future presidential bid seems clear, but at least when he became antiwar he actually started opposing the war vocally and uncompromisingly. Certainly, it’s easy enough for Edwards to say whatever he will now that he isn’t in the Senate, but then Hagel’s willingness to criticise the administration became much greater after he had decided on retirement. Someone will have to explain to me why it is so impressive that, just when Hagel is most needed as a serious, responsible voice in the ever-shrinking Republican conference, he is getting out of town or at least out of the position of influence that he currently has. Viewed one way, Hagel risked alienation and broke with the GOP leadership, and now has to retire because he cannot win re-election, thus paying a high price for principle, but I think the more accurate way to see it is that Hagel broke with the party over this disagreement and then avoided having to answer to his constituents at the polls for the decisions he took over the last two years.
Whether or not one can explain Sen. Hagel’s shift of views entirely in terms of “obvious political ambition,” there was clearly some enthusiasm for the spotlight that seemed to coincide awfully closely with the electoral shellacking the GOP received in 2006 that propelled him to the front of the war debate. After the midterms there was then a great deal of discussion about shoe-sellers and impeachment (Hagel mentioned the latter again last week), all of which had been remarkably absent in the previous three years, at least as far as the public was concerned. If there was no ambition revealed in the very public flirting with Bloomberg, then I don’t know what Hagel was doing. Ross has been more blunt in how he describes it. Arguably, Hagel saw the 2006 results and concluded that the people had spoken and it was now time to ratchet up the criticism. Viewed more critically, Hagel’s actions are those of someone who has very carefully tried to be on the side of the majority while always striking the pose of the thoughtful independent. Don’t misunderstand me–there are times when Hagel actually is thoughtful and independent-minded, but he doesn’t display these qualities nearly as often as his admirers say he does.
I’m not generally one to dwell on the Strange New Respect phenomenon, since it is natural that journalists who have a certain left-leaning view of things find it refreshing and encouraging when they find someone on the right who seems to share some of their concerns. It’s a lot like the way some mainstream conservatives responded to Obama when they first saw him speak, “Finally, a liberal we don’t have to loathe!” How long ago those days seem now! It is also understandable that they will lionise this person for showing strength of character and vision, just as war supporters claim that Joe Lieberman has great integrity and courage…because he agrees with them. Even so, Hagel seems to be a good example of this phenomenon, since it is only thanks to the media’s romance with Hagel over the last year and a half that anyone, much less Obama supporters, would be entertaining the idea of having Hagel on the ticket with Obama. In his administration, maybe, but as Vice President? One reason why this selection strikes me as utterly implausible and also politically ruinous for Obama is that, aside from the war, Hagel is as close to the White House in his voting as anyone in the Senate. This is not a question of his conservatism, of course, but of his consistency in voting with the administration on almost everything. I cannot think of many less suitable running mates for the champion of “turning the page” and breaking with the Bush administration than Hagel. That doesn’t mean that Hagel wouldn’t be a valuable member of an Obama Cabinet, and his foreign policy views are sometimes fairly sensible and they align more with Obama’s than they do with any other candidate’s, but the notion of putting him on the ticket would tend to confirm the most cynical readings of Hagel’s moves in recent years while also detonating whatever credibility Obama may have as a representative of meaningful change.