How bad was Chuck Hagel's performance at his confirmation hearing for the post of Secretary of Defense? So bad that even White House officials are willing to admit glumly to the New York Times that it was "somewhere between baffling and incomprehensible." Most journalists aren't even trying to spin the hearing as a win for Obama. But a few are complaining that Republican Senators were unduly harsh on their former colleague.
One is the Daily Beast's John Avlon, who describes the hearings as a kind of religious inquisition, with the GOP pursuing Hagel with "the pitchfork zeal of heretic hunters." But Avlon presumes that Hagel is "wholly qualified" for the job, which is why he interprets Republicans' questions as "driven by considerations other than qualification for the office." In fact, Hagel has few qualifications, other than his military service, which Democrats mentioned at every opportunity but which does not determine his fitness to run the Department of Defense any more than Sen. John McCain's POW experience qualified him to be President of the United States.
Avlon complains about "partisan opposition research," but seems not to appreciate that opposition serves a critical purpose in driving an inquiry into the beliefs and competence of the high officials who come before the Senate. Certainly the members of the president's own party--with the possible exception of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY)--showed little interest in their task, and seemed content to accept Hagel's private assurances about his views rather than proving to the American people that he is, in fact, in the political mainstream.
Dana Milbank of the Washington Post joins Avlon in griping about the Republican minority, and about McCain and Ranking Member Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) in particular, whom he knocks for being disloyal to their "friend." Milbank makes the rather odd argument that their tough, probing questions to Hagel represent a kind of personal betrayal that marks the death knell of bipartisanship in the Senate. The odd implication seems to be that bipartisanship might require placing personal friendship ahead of the interests of the nation's security.
During the hearings themselves, Dave Weigel of Slate joined Rosie Gray at Buzzfeed in arguing that Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) had attacked Hagel with out-of context quotes--one about a floor speech Hagel gave against the Second Lebanon War in 2006 in which he described "slaughter" by both sides, and the other about an interview on Al-Jazeera in which Hagel failed to correct a called who described a perception of the United States as a "bully."
But while the inferences Cruz drew from Hagel's remarks were not the only possible interpretations, they are certainly the most straightforward ones. How could Israeli attacks on terror targets be equated with Hezbollah's deliberate slaughter of civilians? Why wouldn't Hagel have bothered to correct the Al-Jazeera caller, and in fact have indicated his assent to at least part of what she had said? Cruz did not quote Hagel "out of context"; he just drew conclusions that Hagel struggled to dispute or dispel.
The fact that journalists are upset that a Cabinet member faced tough questions says more about the state of the profession than it does about Senate Republicans or Hagel himself. Our national press corps has been, with a few exceptions, a Greek chorus for the Obama administration. They should welcome such questions; they should enjoy the media spectacle of politicians clashing over principles; they should be following up with questions of their own.
Instead, many just want opposition to go away--Republican opposition, at any rate.