The Democrats control the U.S. Senate, having increased their majority in the 2012 elections from 53-47 to 55-45. Twelve of the 55 Democrats are Jewish, including Brian Schatz, recently appointed by Hawaii’s Governor to complete the term of the late Senator Daniel Inouye. That number stands to rise as former Congressman Barney Frank of Massachusetts lobbies to be appointed as John Kerry's replacement, now that the latter has been named Secretary of State. In the 2012 Presidential race, Jewish support for Barack Obama dropped by about 10 percent, the largest drop in support for Obama from 2008 to 2012 of any ethnic, racial or religious group, though it was still strong at nearly 70 percent.
In 2014, there will be a large number of vulnerable Senate Democrats running for re-election, including Mark Begich of Alaska, Al Franken of Minnesota, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Tim Johnson of South Dakota, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, and possibly one or two more, depending on retirements. For weeks, there has been a steady drum roll of concern among pro-Israel groups, national security organizations and several prominent Jewish Democrats about the impending appointment of former Nebraska Republican Senator Chuck Hagel to be the new Secretary of Defense, replacing Leon Panetta. On Monday, Obama named Hagel to the post, pending of course, Senate confirmation.
Senate Democrats were not looking forward to a battle that forces them to stand with the president, against a significant portion of the Jewish community, still a major funding source for Democratic candidates, and some in the gay community. While the President argued for Hagel as a champion of veterans and a war hero, Hagel is better known for his problems with AIPAC, Israel, Jews, and gays. Gays in 2012 were an even stronger constituency for Obama than Jewish voters.
The senator has a unique group backing his appointment: Iran, the Klan, anti-Israel bloggers and anti-Semites. His former party, the Republicans, have no use for him. Hagel, who considered a run for the GOP presidential nomination in 2008, eventually endorsed Democrat Barack Obama in the 2008 election over his senate colleague John McCain, who served with him in Vietnam. This perfidy was identical to the tack taken by Colin Powell in 2008 and again in 2012, when he abandoned his party’s nominee both times. The president and some of his supporters claimed the Hagel selection showed his bipartisanship, but no one on the Republican side counts Hagel as one of their own any more. Within the Republican party he is considered disloyal, though Obama seems to like him precisely because, since 2008, he has been loyal to Obama.
Hagel was in favor of the Iraq war before he was against it, and he called “the surge” in Iraq, championed by McCain and adopted by President George W. Bush, one of the worst foreign policy decisions in American history. If Hagel was wrong to initially support the war, he seems to also have been wrong to oppose the surge, which produced a dramatic change (improvement) in the combat situation on the ground, and enabled Obama to withdraw American forces from the country, as promised in his campaign. Of course, Obama was opposed to the surge as well, and has never admitted he was wrong about it, consistent with his inability to admit error about anything.
Democrats control the Senate. Barring a Republican filibuster, which can be accomplished with 41 votes, Hagel’s nomination will be considered by a Senate committee controlled by Democrats, and if recommended out of Committee, the nomination will go to the Senate floor. There, the Democrats, if they line up behind Hagel, have the votes to get him confirmed.
How will Democrats in the Senate vote on the Hagel nomination? Clearly, the president is betting he can beat a filibuster if it is attempted by Republicans. To accomplish that, the President needs to peel off at least five Republican Senate votes to add to 55 Democrats to get to 60 and break the filibuster. The President’s assumption is that if the filibuster is defeated, Hagel then has the votes to win on the Senate floor. The president’s confidence is obvious from the fact that he pushed the Hagel nomination forward in the face of a lot of opposition from some of his allies, after pulling the proposed nomination of U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice for Secretary of State in the face of opposition over her misleading statements over what happened in Benghazi, Libya on September 11, 2012. Another way to look at it is that the president did not want to have the administration’s mistakes in the months leading up to the Benghazi attack, and the lies which followed, to be the center of a confirmation battle over Susan Rice. That would put the Obama administration on the firing line. But throwing Hagel to his critics will be a battle over Hagel, not Obama, that Obama thinks he can win in any case.
So far, Democrats who might be expected to challenge the Hagel pick are holding their tongues. One of the most mealy-mouthed responses came from the NJDC, a Jewish Democratic group, that angrily opposed Hagel when he was a Republican but now says he will be okay if confirmed because Obama is “great for Israel," and Obama is the boss. So in essence, the group can still not get themselves to say anything nice about Hagel with regard to Israel, but Obama will keep Hagel from being Hagel when it comes to Israel. That is a pretty low bar for reassurance.
A few Jewish Democratic senators as well as other Senate Democrats rushed to announce their support for Hagel. So far no Republicans have announced their support for Hagel and a few are on record opposing the nomination. A larger number of senators from both parties remain non-committal, indicating that they will carefully consider what happens at Hagel’s confirmation hearings. Of course that hearing will predictably be a charade. Hagel will apologize for offending gays and Jews (he has already gone on record on the former), suggesting which group’s sensitivities may matter more to Democrats at this point. He will argue that he is concerned about Iran’s nuclear program, and open minded about options. He will announce his love for the state of Israel, but his primary allegiance to America. He will try to sound mainstream.
The bigger issue is what the nomination says about the president, of course. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stood his ground with the president during the latter's first term, when the president tried to pressure Israel on settlements and borders. No president likes to be challenged, but this particular narcissist-in-chief seems more offended by this defiance than any of his predecessors. There is a grudge and feelings of revenge lurking in the president’s psyche, I think. Victor Davis Hanson is more direct on what an Obama-Hagel team might mean for Israel.
"He wishes, at last, to redefine the relationship with Israel to something akin to what it was in the 1970s – after a failed effort to do so in the first few months of his first term when he was worried about re-election. I think with a Hagel at Defense, there would be two pragmatic changes in our strategic defense relationship, given Hagel’s importance in matters purely military: We would opt for containment of a nuclear Iran, and not consider pre-emption under any circumstances, much less in loose concert with Israel; and there would deliberately be some diffidence expressed about our willingness to supply and resupply Israel in times of a crisis, especially should the latter have conducted itself in a way the administration determined ‘unhelpful’ or provocative.”
In other words, the United States will not use military force under any circumstance to stop Iran, and if Israel tries that course, the U.S. may no longer have Israel’s back if it gets ugly for Israel (or if there is blowback against the U.S. even if it sits the operation out).
Most Democrats in the Senate and House care a lot more about raising the taxes on the rich, spending more money that China lends us, passing gun control legislation and giving citizenship to (and getting votes from) illegal immigrants, than they do about Israel. Ideally, a show of support for Israel can be done through an easy vote for foreign aid.
The president is always engaged in a holy war with Republicans, since he wants to build a permanent progressive majority for his agenda of pulling America back from its pre-eminent military role in the world, making nice with the Muslim world, and redistributing wealth and income at home. Chuck Hagel shares the president’s desire to downsize the military, avoid wars (drones will suffice in taking out the few really bad people – the terrorists) and distance the United States from Israel (which helps with the outreach to the Muslim world). When the president decided to go all in to obtain passage of Obamacare in 2010, he knew he was putting Democratic seats in Congress at risk. He may be doing the same now, but it is Obama’s agenda and political survival that matters to him, not anyone else’s. He has won his last election, and there is no one blocking the path to going for what he wants.
It is likely that many Democrats in the Senate cautioned the president about the Hagel nomination. The White House ignored them. It is hard to defy a president from your own party and Obama is betting on that, since Democrats are in the majority in the Senate. At this point, this is a very close call, but Hagel is a slight favorite to be confirmed, unless Republican senators unite to fight the nomination and filibuster it to death.