Accomplished legislator. Effective, insightful administrator. Respected, bipartisan leader. Policy visionary. Nothing of the sort has been said of Chuck Hagel – or of President Obama’s other Cabinet nominees John Kerry (State) and Jack Lew (Treasury). When three so remarkably lackluster candidates are nominated for key posts, it is appropriate to ask, quoting A Mighty Wind, “What happened?”
One possible answer: the real Barack Obama finally stood up, and nominated stool pigeons to fill his Cabinet. No fair observer could have so characterized Bob Gates, or Lean Panetta, or even Hillary Clinton. Each had something resembling an achievement on his or her resume when they joined Mr. Obama’s cabinet. In contrast, Kerry and Hagel bring to the Cabinet Room nothing but an overdeveloped sense of their own senatorial grandiosity, while Lew brings only a reputation as an inflexible leftist partisan.
Indeed, if the president wanted competence at DoD, there was no shortage of qualified candidates, including former Undersecretary of Defense Michele Flournoy or Navy Secretary Richard Danzig. Yet neither made the cut, meaning Obama saw in Hagel something not seen in these other candidates. One wonders.
Hagel, by contrast, is a uniquely unqualified SecDef nominee, who approaches the Senate confirmation hearings with no leadership experience in the military or government. Hagel sits on Obama’s Intelligence Advisory Board (Bengazi?), and was on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but unlike his unquestionably qualified predecessors – Rumsfeld, Gates, and Panetta, who brought years of thoughtful military and/or managerial experience – Hagel brings what, exactly?
A reputation for being an arrogant Senator whose greatest attribute was his embrace of conventional Beltway wisdom. Notably, Hagel’s two-term Senate record is devoid of anything resembling leadership, bipartisanship, or significant policy contributions. Indeed, his greatest accomplishment was alienating senators on both sides of the aisle.
In the Senate, Hagel was wrong on the Iraq surge, hesitant to condemn dangerous regimes, and fond of making inflammatory comments about the Jews. He, like President Obama, opposed the Patriot Act while voting to reauthorize it and spoke out against one of the most effective and proven anti-terror tools, the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program.
Now, he, like the president, supports devastating defense cuts and direct negotiations with our enemies, and opposes using force against Iran. Because Hagel and the president are two peas in the same foreign policy pod, the Hagel nomination ensures that the president will receive no push back during his impending attempts to reduce the size (and effectiveness) of the military, withdraw from Afghanistan, and “pivot” to Asia with a shrinking Navy.
However, these nominations reflect most poorly not on Mr. Kerry or Mr. Hagel, but on the president. A president notoriously unable to lead even his own staff is about to exacerbate his most critical failing, executive leadership, by placing the most important federal agencies under the leadership of men who have zero leadership experience.
Yet for President Obama, the Hagel, Kerry, and Lew picks make perfect sense if the goal is political domination, rather than good governance. The Hagel pick, for instance, accomplishes this because it ensures (1) that Obama's foreign policy and military goals will be accomplished, (2) that there's no independent voice at the Pentagon (like Gates or Panetta), and (3) it divides Senate Republicans.
The Hagel pick especially is a political trifecta. It nominates a man ostensibly immunized from criticism due to his military service and a Purple Heart – a la John Kerry who “reported for duty”; it creates a “bipartisan” cabinet with a disloyal Republican with no allegiance to the party [think Jim Jeffords, Lincoln Chafee, Arlen Specter]; and it invites a schism among Senate Republicans, who are bruised from the fiscal cliff melee and sweating the upcoming fight over the debt ceiling and entitlements.
However, for the nation these picks are losers. The basic problem with these small-time picks is that the leadership vacuum and intractable disagreements that plagued the debt ceiling and fiscal cliff negotiations (see Jack Lew) are now exported to State, DoD and Treasury. These are three critical agencies whose leadership has historically been reserved for seasoned political grownups respected on both sides of the political aisle for their experience and competency, e.g. Cordell Hull and Henry Morgenthau (FDR), George Schultz and James Baker (Reagan), and William Cohen and Lawrence Summers (Clinton), etc. Now, however, the Cabinet is shaping up to be a coterie of empty-suited yes-men.
Because of traditional deference to the president, each nominee will likely be confirmed. Yet these nominations, especially Hagel’s, should give the nation pause. Following the fiscal cliff debacle, they are yet further proof that for Obama, perceived political victory is more important than good governance and the leadership and compromise necessary to achieve it.
Finally, the most troubling aspect of this is not that these nominees are unfit to lead their respective agencies. Rather, it is that in light of the president’s demonstrated inability to lead, they will have to.