The biggest loser from yesterday’s atrocious confirmation hearings for Secretary of Defense-designate Chuck Hagel was New York Senator Chuck Schumer, who backed Hagel in mid-January. Schumer had initially indicated that he was doubtful about voting for Hagel, but later reversed himself and gave Schumer his full support. Now Schumer, who once styled himself as Israel’s “guardian” in the Senate, must be feeling regrets.
If Schumer had only waited until the confirmation hearings, and watched the former Republican Senator stumble over basic facts about American defense policy, he would have been able to announce a “no” vote without alienating the White House. They, too, must surely realize how poorly Hagel did–even if they, like others, were shocked by his performance. Instead, Schumer’s early support looks both premature and foolish.
Schumer’s backing was key in locking in Democratic support for Hagel, giving cover to others in his party who might have been timid about backing a candidate with a history of controversial statements on Israel and the “Jewish lobby.” If Hagel succeeds in being confirmed, as still seems likely Schumer will deserve much of the credit–or the blame.
The second-biggest loser was the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which chose to sit out the Hagel confirmation. True, AIPAC has never taken a position on a presidential nomination. But AIPAC’s silence was interpreted by Senators as tacit support. As Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) said during a debate on MSNBC yesterday: “You and I both know that if Chuck Hagel presented a threat to Israel, AIPAC would be swarming over the Hill.” In politics, perception is reality. AIPAC’s silence was assent.
AIPAC’s defenders might argue that it was effective precisely because it was silent–that Hagel was not able to play the victim against the so-called “lobby,” and that other issues came to the fore. If Hagel is defeated, which would require a Republican filibuster, the organization would quietly claim success. But there is no doubt that AIPAC’s clout has been diminished by the Hagel nomination, and its bipartisan pretensions damaged.
Bipartisanship is difficult to maintain when one side–in this case, Democrats–stray so far from a common consensus. The gradual drift of Democratic voters away from Israel (and Republican voters toward it), combined with the determined efforts of left-wing activists to remove traditional pro-Israel planks from the party platform, have reduced “bipartisan” support for Israel to a vote for foreign aid as the least common denominator.
In fact, while Hagel was imploding in the hearing room, AIPAC was busy elsewhere in the Senate, helping to defeat an amendment by Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) that would have prevented U.S. military aircraft and tanks from being shipped to the radical, antisemitic, anti-Israel, anti-American Muslim Brotherhood government of Egypt. AIPAC’s apparent rationale: they worried that U.S. influence with the Egyptian government might diminish.
It is no doubt gratifying to AIPAC to see that others have taken up the pro-Israel cause. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), for example, not only cornered Hagel over his “Jewish lobby” comment, but also destroyed the conspiracy theory itself. But supporters of Israel can no longer count on the likes of Chuck Schumer or strong advocacy from AIPAC. As the Ed Koch generation passes on, the torch will have to be passed–to someone else.