Former senator Chuck Hagel's shoddy performance at his confirmation hearing yesterday has not merely been panned by conservative outlets but also liberal ones. For example, in "What Happened to Hagel?", Daily Beast's Ali Gharib concluded that "a proud statesman" appeared "confused and unsure as he took body shots" from skeptical senators, all the while being unable to explain "some version—any version—of the sober views he's put forward over his years as a foreign policy thinker."John Judis of The New Republic complained that "[f]ormer Sen. Chuck Hagel didn’t acquit himself well.... He was equivocal, often unconvincing, and seemed taken aback by questions that had been swirling around the rightwing blogosphere for weeks."
But leave it to the Washington Post to dutifully carry the Obama administration's water. In his page A3 February 1 story, "Hagel sharply attacked at Senate hearing," Ernesto Londono took aim at the GOP for their "withering criticism" of Hagel. Londono conceded that "at times [Hagel] struggled" but insisted that he "nonetheless offered a full-throated endorsement of the United States' alliance with Israel, insisted he has never advocated for unilateral nuclear disarmament and called Iran an existential threat."
Early in his piece, Londono focused on how Hagel's Obama administration handlers spinned the hearings:
Chuck Hagel, President Obama’s nominee as defense secretary, confronted withering criticism during a marathon confirmation hearing Thursday, but administration officials said they felt confident that the Republican-led attacks did not derail his bid to lead the Pentagon.
An administration official said the combative nature of the hearing did not come as a surprise for a nominee who has faced more sustained and personal opposition than any of Obama’s Cabinet picks.
“There’s no indication that this is peeling off any support that was there before today,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the administration’s internal assessment of the hearing.
Hagel appeared defensive, frustrated and lethargic during much of the hearing. But none of the zingers or missteps appeared serious enough to sway a significant number of senators to vote across party lines. Democrats outnumber Republicans on the committee 14 to 12, and administration officials and analysts said the vote would probably fall along party lines.
It was only deeper in the article that Londono addressed Hagel's missteps in his testimony regarding Iran policy:
Senators spent a great deal of time pressing Hagel on his views on Iran, demanding to know why he has in the past rejected unilateral sanctions and why he refused to endorse an effort to designate the Iran’s Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization.
The question elicited one of Hagel’s most damaging missteps, as he argued that it would have been unprecedented to add a military unit of an “elected, legitimate government” as a terrorist organization. Senators took exception to that characterization, which Hagel later softened. On the broader question of the best approach to reducing the threat Iran poses, the nominee defended some of his past positions.
“I think it’s always wise to try to talk to people before you get into war,” he said. He later added: “I never thought engagement is weakness.”
But even here, Londono was softening the blow, failing to explain Hagel's comedy of errors on the "containment" policy regarding Iranian nukes, which the New York Times's Elisabeth Bumiller did note:
Mr. Hagel faltered at one point, saying shortly before noon that he strongly supported the president’s policy of “containment” of Iran. He was quickly handed a note, which he read and then corrected himself, “Obviously, we don’t have a position on containment.”
At that point Mr. Levin interjected, “We do have a position on containment, which is we do not favor containment.” The Obama administration’s policy on Iran obtaining nuclear weapons remains prevention. Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.
By contrast, The Fix blogger Chris Cillizza was a bit more brutally honest in his January 31 assessment "Chuck Hagel was bad. And It doesn't matter" although Cillizza seemed to fault Hagel for not being prepared to tangle with the mean ol' Republicans than to criticize Hagel as just plain unprepared:
Former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel was, at turns, halting, befuddled and, often, just plain bad during his confirmation hearing to be the next Secretary of Defense. And it almost certainly won’t keep him from becoming the next man to lead the Pentagon.
Let’s start with what Hagel did wrong. He appeared to be taken completely aback by the aggressiveness of the questioning from many of his former Republican colleagues on long-hashed over topics like his posture toward Iran and Israel as well as his past statements regarding the surge in Iraq.
Hagel not only should have been more ready for the questions he struggled with but also for the confrontational tone in which many of them were asked. There is nothing — we repeat nothing — that members of one party dislike more than a politician who they view as having abandoned the party (and them). And, Hagel’s distancing from his party viewpoint on Iraq and his all-but-official support for Obama’s presidential campaigns are the sort of thing that just don’t sit very well with his former colleagues.
Before condemning the Hagel hearing as solely a partisan witch hunt conducted by vindicative Republicans seeking revenge on Hagel, don’t forget what Missouri Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill, a longtime ally of President Obama, had to say about Hagel’s performance.
“Chuck Hagel is much more comfortable asking questions than answering them.,” McCaskill told NBC’s Andrea Mitchell. “That’s one bad habit you get into when you’ve been in the Senate — you can dish it out but sometimes it’s a little more difficult to take it.”
In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone not blood related to Hagel who will tell you that he did extremely well at Thursday’s hearing. And, yes, there are some reports that Republicans are keeping open the possibility of blocking Hagel’s nomination from a vote on the Senate floor.
But, amid all of that sturm und drang regarding Hagel’s poor performance, it’s also important to remember that if history is any guide, the former Nebraska Senator is still very likely to be confirmed.
The reason is simple: Democrats appear to still be on board with Hagel. And as long as Democrats don’t break ranks that means that Hagel will get through the Senate Armed Services Committee (where Democrats hold a 14-12 edge) and a full Senate vote (where Democrats or Democratic-aligned independents control 55 seats).
Short of Democrats peeling away en masse from Hagel, which they seem unlikely to do — as much from loyalty to President Obama as any allegiance to the former Nebraska Republican Senator — the only way that he wouldn’t be confirmed is if Republicans choose to block his nomination.