The furor over the nomination of former Sen. Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense would have Americans believe that President Obama has nominated someone so wholly unsuited to the job that they have to question the president’s judgment. In fact, what needs to be questioned is the peculiar response of Republican lawmakers to the nomination of one of their own.
That’s not to say that senators of both parties don’t need to perform their constitutional role to advise and consent. Indeed, that is just the point: This is a nomination that calls for the usual diligence and, barring something we don’t already know, deference to the president’s Cabinet choices.
It’s not uncommon, especially in recent decades, for Supreme Court nominations to provoke an intensely partisan response from the Senate, which confirms nominees to the courts and the president’s Cabinet. As unfortunate as that trend is, it is based on the fact that court appointments are for the lifetime of the nominee. Cabinet officers, by contrast, serve at the pleasure of the president.
That is why the Senate typically defers to any president’s choice for Cabinet posts and it is why the response to Hagel’s nomination is so unusual. Which is not to say that it’s not predictable. Republicans are still smarting over the election that denied them the White House and that cost them seats in both chambers of Congress. They are embarrassed over their role in the fiscal cliff charade that played out in December and the beginning of January. That is also why they raised such a ruckus over the plan to nominate U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice as secretary of state.
They should all simmer down and just do their jobs. There are legitimate questions to ask Hagel and they should do so: about his problem with sanctions on Iran; about his comments on Israel; about his support for negotiating with Hamas and Hezbollah; about his approach to managing the Pentagon in a time of national financial strain; about comments on gays, for which he has since apologized.
They should also acknowledge the strengths that Hagel would bring to the job. A decorated veteran of the Vietnam War, he has the president’s confidence and a steely will that will prevent military brass from intimidating him. That’s crucial to all who believe the framers were correct in requiring civilian control over the military.
He was also a steady hand on critical subjects, according to none other than Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who in 2008 said, “In two terms in the Senate, Chuck has earned the respect of his colleagues and risen to national prominence as a clear voice on foreign policy and national security.” Those seem like good qualities to have in a defense secretary.
Similarly, senators must perform their constitutional duties in evaluating the nomination of John O. Brennan as director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Brennan appears to be eminently qualified for the post, but he needs to answer questions about the use of drones in the war on terror and about his role in supporting or opposing the use of torture when he served at the CIA under President George W. Bush.
These are legitimate questions that senators should be prepared to ask. But neither nomination requires the kind of whooping and hollering that Republicans have directed at Hagel. In that, they are tipping their hand.