Did anyone tell Chuck Hagel there would be questions?
It shouldn’t have mattered. The promise of Chuck Hagel was (or is—he’s only got to win over four Republicans to forestall a rare Cabinet nominee filibuster) the truth-telling. Hagel has less executive experience than any DOD nominee in decades, but he bonded with Democrats because of a years-long, realist approach to Israel, Iran, and the defense budget. In 2006, Democrats ran against the war in Iraq and won; in 2008, they defeated the chief Republican proponent of the surge; in 2012, they won the Jewish vote again against a historic campaign to portray them as anti-Zionists.
Hagel’s goal Thursday was to consolidate that by getting at least one Republican on the committee to come out for him. Democrats hold 14 of 26 seats on Senate Armed Services, and none of them have hinted that they oppose Hagel. It made sense for Hagel to be demure—more sense than it made, say, for Barack Obama to approach his first debate with Mitt Romney as a do-no-harm scenario.
But the result was a nominee who searched for words like he was trapped in a closet, grasping for a dropped flashlight. Democrats praised Hagel’s Vietnam service, to the extent that Hagel encouraged them to ask about policy instead. He couldn’t get granular on any of that, he said, but “if confirmed, I intend to know a lot more than I do.” Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed, a Hagel supporter, asked a pillowy-soft question about the nominee’s conversations with the president. “When he asked me why am I qualified,” said Hagel, “I said I’m not.” This was campaign-profile talk transplanted with maximum awkwardness to a situation in which people wanted to hear about expertise.
More expertise might have staved off the Republican doubts. Acting contrite got Hagel nowhere. Early in the day, timed just right to set the whole narrative, Sen. John McCain asked Hagel to renounce his old skepticism of the surge in Iraq.
“Do you stand by those comments?” asked McCain.
“Senator,” said Hagel, “I stand by them because I made them.”
“Were you right?” asked McCain. “Were you correct in your assessment?”
“I would defer to the judgment of history,” said Hagel.
“I think this committee deserves your judgment as to whether you were right or wrong!” said McCain.
It went on until McCain, deeply unsatisfied, switched to a line of Syria questions. The Democrat assigned to clean up, Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, tried to help out Hagel by pointing out the long-term cost and disaster of the Iraq War as a whole—forget the surge. But Hagel meandered into an apology about his vote that contradicted his answer to McCain and contradicted seven years of his career. “Doesn’t mean I’m right,” he said. “Doesn’t mean I didn’t make wrong votes.”
What was the point of that? Instead of trying to convince skeptical Republicans of his rightness, Hagel accepted their premises, his logical threads collapsing into black holes. Sen. Kelly Ayotte reminded Hagel of a speech he’d given listing “containment” as a possible response to the dangers posed by Iran. Hagel could have defended the speech (“containment” was at the end of a list of better options) or explained why his thinking evolved. Instead, he suggested that “it doesn’t matter what I think,” because he’d mind-melded with the president.
Michigan Sen. Carl Levin bailed out his former colleague. “You said to Sen. Ayotte, ‘It doesn’t matter what I believe,’ ” he said. “Of course, it does matter what you believe. I think what you were saying was, ‘What does matter is what the president believes.’ ” Yes. That was what he meant. During one break, Hagel turned to a friend in the rows directly behind him and joked wryly about how he had good speeches he’d never written down. The hearing continued. Hagel answered questions about another speech with “I don’t recall the event. I don’t recall the words. I don’t know the context.” The studied ignorance of modern judicial confirmation hearings had come to Armed Services, but the graft wasn’t taking.
But the irony stuck. Most Republican questions scored Hagel not for his views on defense spending but on his support of Israel and foreign policy in the neighborhood. “I’ve seen a number of times,” said Sen. Roy Blunt, “you’ve said you’re pro-Israel, but you don’t have to be reflexively what Israel is for.” That was the totality of Blunt’s argument—well, that and how Hagel had been saluted by University of Chicago political scientist John Mearsheimer, one of the co-authors of The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy. Lindsey Graham had wanted to know who had ever been spooked by The Lobby and what stupid things they’d done out of panic. The answer was right in front of him, at the witness table.
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet at him @daveweigel.