Since the election, Republican talking points have reflected the fact that they need to reach out beyond their base: to be positive rather than negative; appear more reasonable, less obstructionist.
But how you act speaks more loudly than what you say, and Senate Republicans have doubled down on obstructionism with their shameful filibuster of secretary-of-defense nominee Chuck Hagel. Add to this fresh insult the hold Sen. Rand Paul put on Obama’s nominee to be CIA director, John Brennan, and it looks like Republicans are backing a cynical political strategy that could compromise national security while proliferating hyperpartisanship even further in the future.
Let’s put this in perspective—Republicans decided to filibuster a Republican secretary-of-defense nominee, someone Mitch McConnell once called one of the most respected foreign-policy voices in the Senate, someone John McCain said would make an excellent secretary of state.
The Senate, of course, is entrusted with the ability to advise and consent—but filibustering a cabinet nominee is virtually unprecedented, because it violates the time-honored principle that presidents should be able to pick their cabinet. In the process, Republicans are creating a dangerous precedent that could impact presidents of both parties for decades to come. If this is the new normal for national-security appointees, I’m sure the next Supreme Court nomination will be a model of reason and civility.
Keep in mind the GOP doesn’t have the votes to kill these nominations. Because Democrats control 55 seats in the Senate—after winning uphill races in states ranging from North Dakota to Montana to Indiana—Republicans can’t hope to win an up or down vote. And so they pulled a cowardly parliamentary move to obstruct a straight vote, imposing a filibuster that breaks with all precedent, simultaneously reminding Americans why we desperately need filibuster reform.
Reality check: In recent history, there have been only two other instances of cabinet officials needing to meet a 60-vote threshold for cabinet confirmation: Reagan’s second-term Commerce Secretary C. William Verity and George W. Bush’s Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne. Paleoconservative Jesse Helms objected to Verity because the nominee favored increased trade with the Soviet Union. Democrat Bill Nelson put a hold on Kempthorne in a protest against Bush administration oil and gas drilling policies off the Florida coast. Ultimately, in both cases, cloture passed with 85 votes, and the cabinet nominees were easily confirmed. Likewise, the Hagel nomination is still likely to eventually pass once the efforts to intimidate have been exhausted.
The Hagel attacks have been particularly ugly, because they involve Republicans trying to tear down the reputation of a fellow Republican and former senator. Hagel—an enlisted combat vet, two-time Purple Heart winner, and veterans-affairs director under Reagan—is bitterly resented by neoconservatives for opposing the 2007 surge and the Iraq War, in a break with President Bush. But on a deeper level, his sin might be described as collaboration—agreeing to cross party lines to work for this Democratic president—and in this he must be made an example.
Special-interest-funded opposition research and conservative super PACs have been deployed for months to derail the nomination, trying to create the impression that Hagel is anti-Israel and weak on Iran, despite voluminous testimony to the contrary. This effort led to the words “Israel” and “Iran” being used more than 100 times each during his hostile confirmation hearing, but “Afghanistan” barely at all, as this now infamous word cloud shows. It is a sign of the times: as with Obama Derangement Syndrome and Bush Derangement Syndrome before it, there is the dogged impulse to create a monstrous caricature out of a basically honorable person who wants to serve his country. The gap between partisan narrative and reality grows.
The desperation of Hagel’s critics has given rise to ugly moments, as when Oklahoma’s Sen. Jim Inhofe asked whether Hagel has ties to the Iran foreign ministry and freshman Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, huffing up conspiracy theories, asked if money “deposited in his bank account came directly from Saudi Arabia, came directly from North Korea.”
Sen. Bill Nelson rightly rebuked him, saying: “Senator Cruz has gone over the line … He basically has impugned the patriotism of the nominee.” Even a onetime friend of Hagel’s turned harsh critic, John McCain said: “No one on this committee should at any time impugn his character or his integrity.”
The Hill weighed in, saying Cruz “acted like Joe McCarthy in short pants with his insults of war hero Hagel.” And the Houston Press also reached for the McCarthy metaphor, saying, “Cruz has spent the last week channeling the ghost of McCarthy, blasting baseless accusations at Chuck Hagel … The freshman senator seems intent on wringing some sort of Islamist bent from Hagel, parsing verbs and phrases and looking, exegetically, at every single interview and financial source the former senator has ever crossed.”
Yep, this is getting ugly. And unnecessary. Reasonable people can disagree on policy, but it just so happens that the majority of Americans agree with Hagel (and Obama) that the Iraq War was a costly mistake in retrospect, driven by bad intelligence and ideology rather than national interest. But this fight isn’t rooted in a debate over reasonable policy differences as much as an investment in the politics of personal destruction—the demand that demonizations be disqualifiers in themselves.
And so we see lies and distortions—senators convincing themselves that a man McCain once said would be qualified to serve as secretary of state is suddenly a threat to national security, as they try to run out the clock and pray that well-paid opposition researchers dig up more dirt on Hagel so they can be proven right.
The Brennan hold is comparatively small ball, because it is rooted in the idiosyncrasies of Rand Paul, who is demanding more information on drone policy—an issue of growing concern. But there is overlap with the fight over Hagel, with senators arguing that the cloture vote is not a filibuster, because they just want more information on the attack in Benghazi, Libya.
This bitter confirmation fight is sadly ironic, because picking a member of the opposite party to serve in a cabinet is usually an olive branch, a sign of outreach. But no longer. And the abuse of the filibuster to try to block—or at least delay—the confirmation of a secretary of defense again raises questions about filibuster reform. Because if a senator had to hold the floor and risk his bladder—like Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington—while keeping at least 41 of his colleagues on the floor over Presidents’ Day weekend, my guess is that this block never would have occurred.
Instead this hate-fueled game of Kabuki continues, and the Pentagon is denied a new leader with a NATO summit just days away. This can’t be the headline Republicans want as they try to rebrand: “GOP Plays Politics With National Security.”