Former senator Chuck Hagel, a Republican from Nebraska, speaks at Bellevue University in February 2007.
The Republican Party is given these days to hysteria, and what appears at the moment to be a white-guy cabinet in the second Obama term is more likely the result of botched orchestration than anything. That doesn’t mean there isn’t something to South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham’s contention that the president is deliberately getting in the opposition’s face with his recent nominations. As those of us who have been supportive of the president wrestle with the moral question of whether he deserves as much grief as we would have given a newly elected Mitt Romney for filling the three biggest jobs in his administration with old white males, or whether Obama’s first term—including a female secretary of State and two female Supreme Court appointments—earns him some slack, the Machiavellian genius of the choices is lost. The Republicans are in disarray not because they drew some particularly wacky names from a hat when it came to fielding congressional candidates but because their constituency is wacky, something so obvious that the only option for pols and pundits alike is to ignore it: A third of the country is fucking out of its mind. Of course some portion of the country always has been out of its mind, which is what Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln and Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained are about, and the country’s task always has been transcending this. But now that Republican psychosis has become so pronounced even the party itself is beset by flashes of self-awareness, a cleave has developed into which Field Marshal Barack drives his pincer division of Kerry, Hagel, and Lew.
Hagel is the key. Why would Obama pick him? people scratch their heads, pondering the coming conflagration. Why would he fight for Hagel for secretary of State when he wouldn’t fight for Susan Rice (to whom by all accounts the president is personally closer)? Leaving aside the fact that John Kerry was always a better choice than Rice for State, and acknowledging the logic that former center-right Republican senator Chuck Hagel is the man to extract cuts from the Defense Department on behalf of a center-left Democratic commander-in-chief, less stated reasons suggest that Obama has more a knack for the politics of metaphor than even his allies have allowed. The key constituency up for grabs in today’s body politic is white working-class men. While the president assumes correctly that he stores credit with women, African Americans, Hispanic Americans, gay Americans—read it as taking them for granted if you will—in the meantime blue-collar white guys have viewed the black president and his party with enough suspicion to continue voting for a rich man’s party and against their blue-collar white-guy interests.
As General Colin Powell implied in his Meet the Press interview yesterday, Obama’s appointment of Hagel compels Republicans to figure out who they are. Now we will have the spectacle of Republican senators opposing a decorated two-fisted Republican war hero as disinclined to go to war as other war heroes from Powell back to Eisenhower. The more that supposedly seasoned members of the GOP claim that Hagel is out of the mainstream for challenging the buildup in Iraq and potential war with Iran (skepticism with which the public agrees on both counts by large margins), then the more that Republicans lurch rightward in the eyes of the public at large and, in particular, two-fisted guys sitting in front of their televisions curling beer cans into furious fistfuls of metal every time Lindsey Graham opens his mouth. Hagel’s confirmation depends on a certain amount of deftness on his part, which means saying nothing too inartfully and no heretofore unknown scandal suddenly emerging, leaving his opponents no basis for attacking him other than their own positions that are at odds with not only the non-crazy two-thirds of the country but working white guys exhausted of their own lurking lunacy by the end of every long working day. Because Republicans aren’t nearly as smart as the rest of us have thought for the last 30 years, they’ll go after Hagel first because they’ve decided to give Kerry a pass and because they believe that Hagel is more vulnerable than Treasury nominee Jack Lew; in fact Hagel is the linchpin in this phalanx, the masterstroke, and if he wins confirmation at considerable cost to his own party, the others (including Lew) march in behind him, the Republican fever breaking—as the president once predicted—if only for a moment. The president who terminated bin Laden is trading his team of rivals for a brigade of brawlers in order to win back white-male Reagan Democrats once and for all.