The only instance in modern American history where the Senate rejected a presidential nominee for defense secretary was in 1989. Former Texas Senator John Tower failed to win a simple majority in the Senate and was forced to retire from public life. With all the embarrassment this resounding failure caused George H. W. Bush's administration, the rejection was not directed at Tower's policies but at his personal conduct. Tower was very fond of drink and also a repeat violator of the seventh commandment: "Thou shall not commit adultery."
But the present delay in Chuck Hagel's appointment as U.S. defense secretary is overtly political in tone. Hagel has by no means been rejected, but his confirmation is hitting a lot of bumps in the road. This is unusual. Senators usually show respect and solidarity to their recent former colleagues, and also tend to defer to the president's wishes on matters of defense and foreign policy. These timeworn patterns were upended last Thursday, when the Senate's Democratic majority tried to forestall a Republican filibuster by immediately ending the discussion of Hagel's appointment (which would have required a supermajority of 60 senators).
Only next week, when the Senate resumes after a brief recess, will it be possible to finally vote on the appointment. At that point, the Democrats will only need a simple majority of 51 senators to award Hagel the top defense post.
On paper, at least, the former senator from Nebraska's chances of winning the coveted role are good. But when all is said and done, we cannot rule out the possibility that something might happen in the next few days to bring him down.
First, Hagel has become a pawn in the hostile conflict between the White House and the Republican Party. The Republican Party has suffered a series of humiliating defeats and failures of late, especially the defeat of presidential candidate Mitt Romney. In Hagel, it has identified a golden opportunity to restore a smidgen of its self-respect.
Despite being a Republican, Hagel is not well liked among his fellow party members. This is because he crossed the divide and adopted dovish (if not bleeding heart) views on foreign and defense policies. These views place him on the liberal fringes of the political map, and have made him an easy target for fellow Republicans and a fall guy for the president's controversial positions on international affairs.
The public criticism of Hagel gained widespread traction in light of his embarrassing inability to present a coherent and orderly worldview during his testimony, instead getting caught in endless contradictions.
In addition, Hagel's many remarks over the years opposing Israel and the pro-Israel lobby (which he tried to shake off during his confirmation hearing) blew wind into the sails of his critics and helped bog down his confirmation.
Let us not forget that Hagel has been asked to provide documents concerning contributions he received from various organizations — some of which are raising eyebrows.
Even if he persists in refusing — with the White House's full support — to provide this documentation, there is still a chance that his opponents' search for damning information will turn up a smoking gun. For instance, someone could find incontrovertible proof that he received money from an organization associated with Hamas. Such a revelation would force Hagel to immediately withdraw his nomination.
Despite the difficulties, it is safe to assume that the Senate will not stray from its traditional path in such matters and will confirm Hagel. Just as the Senate confirmed Ronald Reagan's nominee for the position of national security adviser in 1982, despite nominee William Clark's displaying the most glaring ignorance of basic foreign policy issues. Unless a political bomb drops, Hagel too will likely be confirmed, even though his positions are so distant from what is expected of and befits the world's only superpower.