The Hagel Factor

In fighting the Bolton nomination, the guy to watch on the Senate Foreign Relations Commitee is Chuck Hagel. Unlike most Republican internationalists, who've found the ideal out of necessity, and most Democratic internationalists, who've arrived there through convenience, Hagel's got a real commitment to the philosophy. That should make Bolton's nomination anathema to him and, indeed, he's already sounding cautious notes on the guy. But an independent's misgivings would rarely translate into a "no" vote on a presidential nominee, particularly in committee. I think Hagel may be different.

The real question with him is how he figures the vote will affect his 2008 aspirations. If he holds out hope of attracting Republican support, he'll probably fall back on some trite "deserves an up-or-down vote" boilerplate and be done with it. And, two or three weeks ago, I'd have bought that scenario. But the conservative forces massing against Hagel's run are pretty unprecedented. Witness, for instance, the fusillade launched by the American Spectator against the morose-looking Nebraskan. To spend a cover story killing, or trying to kill, a candidacy still three years in the future is reasonably absurd, but a good indicator of the depths that conservative distaste for Hagel have reached.

For his part, Hagel has to make a choice. Can he shed his internationalist label in time for the campaign, and, if not, what's an alternate path out of the primaries? Since he's not going to be an establishment choice like Kerry was -- that'll probably go to Frist or Guiliani -- his only option is as a McCain-esque maverick who sweeps the independents and moderate Republicans. In that role, a principled vote against the UN-hatin' Bolton makes perfect sense. Indeed, running as the candidate willing to return sensible internationalism to a Republican party set ideologically adrift by the neocons becomes his only chance. Which, to me, means Hagel is probably the guy to target in the coming months using e-mails and letters packed with phrases like "principled choice" and "sterling independent reputation". If he votes against and no Dems defect, the count stands at 9-9, and then, who knows what the embattled Chafee does? The odds are probably against that outcome, but they get significantly better if the Senator (Hagel, not Chafee) sense some sort of constituency for a sober foreign policy realist willing to buck the president in order to preserve world order -- particularly considering the enormous press, and thus visibility, the vote would give Hagel. We can help create that critical mass.