My colleague Michael J.W. Stickings over at The Reaction makes what I think is the strongest case against Obama’s pick of Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense, Obama Misses Opportunity With Hagel Nomination. Basically, the optics are all wrong on this. Why is our Democratic president yet again picking a Republican as defense secretary? I think I know: Obama cares more about his legacy than he does the legacy of his party.
Despite decades of shrill and incompetent military policy from Republicans, the American people still consider them strong on national security. Of course, one could use this to argue that it doesn’t matter who Obama nominates. If 9/11, Iraq, and Afghanistan weren’t enough to change perceptions, what difference would a Republican defense secretary nomination make? But I think it does matter. The ineptitude of the Bush Jr years have made the Republican footing on national security much less firm.
Glenn Greenwald has been boosting for Hagel for a long time. In his most recent writing on the subject he deals with liberal displeasure with the (then) upcoming nomination, Chuck Hagel and Liberals: What Are the Priorities? He argues that there are two liberal complaints and that neither is very strong. First, there is the claim that Hagel is anti-gay. Greenwald rightly points out that this is long in the past and that he has apologized for it. The second is the optics concern of Michael and me. To this Greenwald points out that the current defense secretary, Leon Panetta, is a strong Democrat.
I don’t think this is a terribly good argument. With Hagel’s appointment, Obama will have had two of three Republican secretaries of defense. With the lessening appeal of the Republican claim to be strong on national defense, people can now point to the Democrats, “See: even they know they’re weak!” Most likely, Obama would claim that he just wants to get things done. And if there were any real hope of streamlining the pentagon, I might accept that argument. But with the Republican House, it looks like military cuts are going to be things Democrats have to trade away in return for not savaging social programs.
Regardless, I believe that the president deserves to get the cabinet that he wants. If Romney had been elected president, I would not have opposed even the pick of Glenn Hubbard as treasury secretary. But it’s too bad that our president doesn’t do a better job of supporting his own party.
There is an up side to Hagel: it drives Fox on 15th Street crazy.
Actually, there is more than that. Greenwald puts it well:
Given the steadfast and usually unquestioning support most liberals have given this Democratic President as he’s pursued policies of aggression and militarism, they should refrain from opposing one of the few prominent dissidents on these matters absent some very compelling reasons. So far, nothing remotely compelling has been offered. If this nomination actually happens, this will be one of Obama’s best appointments and boldest steps of his presidency. It would be ironic indeed, and more than a bit unfortunate, if liberals decide to make this nomination one of the very few times they are willing to oppose their party’s leader.