On "Emboldening" Republicans

I want to expand on something I brought up yesterday on the utility, for the opposition party, of doing nothing more with your efforts than becoming the biggest pain in the president's ass you possibly can. As of now, Republicans have mounted an unprecedented filibuster against Chuck Hagel's nomination to be Secretary of Defense, the latest in a long line of cases in which they looked at a prevailing norm of doing business in Washington and realized that there was no reason they couldn't violate it. Sure, up until now we had an unspoken agreement that the president would get to appoint pretty much whoever he wants to his cabinet unless the nominee was a drunk, a criminal, or grossly unqualified. But Republicans feel perfectly free to cast that agreement aside. Why? Because screw you, Obama, that's why. In any case, it looks at the moment as though this filibuster will be temporary, and Hagel will eventually get confirmed.

So now, there are two ways to look at this. Having caused all this trouble, will the Republicans feel like they got it out of their system and calm themselves down a bit? Or will they be emboldened to find new and creative ways to throw monkey wrenches into the gears of government?

As Michael Tomasky points out, the whole idea of appointing a Republican was to avoid this kind of mess:

The only utility to a Democratic president of having a Republican SecDef is that Republicans will cut the guy some slack and not pester him the way they might go after a Democrat. Hagel obviously will not fulfill that purpose, so I'm not sure what good Hagel is to Obama anyway. He's more trouble than he's worth. Hagel ought to think about withdrawing his name. I'd rather see a Democrat running the shop anyway. The only problem with Hagel withdrawing is that it escalates this craziness.

I agree with Tomasky in that I don't particularly care on a substantive level whether Chuck Hagel becomes Secretary of Defense. From what I can tell he'll be neither the best occupant of that position we've had nor the worst. I also think that the idea that he'll fundamentally shape American foreign policy is overblown; Barack Obama seems to have a pretty clear idea of what he wants, and Hagel isn't going to steamroll him into doing things he doesn't want to do. It isn't like he'll be Don Rumsfeld, blundering about the world causing destruction while his president is too busy contemplating his place in history to notice. But would it really escalate the craziness if Hagel did withdraw?

I think there's always reason to be skeptical of arguments that involve somebody getting "emboldened" to act in ways they otherwise wouldn't. You may recall that we heard this a lot from the Bush administration and its supporters during the long years of the Iraq War. We couldn't even discuss getting out, they argued, because that would "embolden" the terrorists. But if you will recall, lack of boldness wasn't al Qaeda's problem. And no, I'm not saying congressional Republicans are like terrorists, but the principle is basically the same. It's true that people's future behavior can be shaped by whether they think they won or lost the last battle. But good decisions seldom come from worrying whether you look weak to the other side.

I'm sure that as far as many Republicans are concerned, they already won on the whole Hagel question, because their goal wasn't to stop someone they genuinely believe has troubling views, or to move the Pentagon more in a direction they want; their goal was to ruin Barack Obama's day. And if Hagel withdrew his nomination, it wouldn't "embolden" them, because ruining Obama's day is about all the grand strategy they have right now.

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