Chuck Hagel’s uneven performance during the first round of questioning before the Senate Armed Services Committee has raised questions about his nomination’s viability. His answers, often stumbling and confused, have raised more questions about his fitness to run the Defense Department. While Democrats have enough votes in the Senate to confirm him, Hagel’s testimony puts pressure on a particular block of Democrat Senators; those running for reelection in 2014.
Democrats face another challenging political landscape next year. They will be defended 20 seats against the GOP’s 13 seats. Almost all of the GOP seats are in safe states for the party. Democrats, however, will be defending many deeply-red states. The incumbents running in these states last won election during Obama’s wave election in 2008. They are unlikely to again face such a favorable political climate. Some of Hagel’s answers under questioning today could pose a real liability.
Most troubling, perhaps, was the line of questions from TX Sen. Ted Cruz. First, Cruz effectively pointed out that Hagel had not yet provided the committee with full disclosure of his finances. He appears to have investments with several companies who work with the Defense Department. A full review of these may reveal potential conflicts of interest.
Cruz then turned to something far more damaging. Cruz played clips from an interview Hagel gave to Al-Jazeera television. In the clips, Hagel seemed to agree with observations that Israel had committed war crimes and that the US was the world’s biggest bully. Under questioning, Hagel tried to explain that he wasn’t agreeing with the comments, per se, but simply acknowledging the observations.
Hagel’s explanations were unconvincing. Moreover, the clips betray how radical some of Hagel’s views are. As the hearings continue, the full range of his worldview will become more clear. It is not a view that gives comfort at a time of global uncertainty and instability.
Democrats will be running for reelection in deeply red states like Louisiana, Arkansas, Alaska, South Dakota, Montana, and North Carolina. Sen. Mark Warner will seek reelection in Virginia, a state dependent to a degree on a strong military. Hagel is widely expected to manage a sharp decline in the Defense budget, which would hit the state hard.
Confirmation hearings generally provide nominees the opportunity to weave together a reasonable narrative about their expected performance. Hagel, so far, has failed at that. If he doesn’t rebound in future rounds of questioning, he may prove a nomination too far for potentially vulnerable Democrats. 2014 may seem a long way off, but it is the first thing on the minds of these Democrats. They may provide the difference.