Chuck Hagel’s old antagonists aren’t really dancing on his grave. The former Republican senator from Nebraska who became secretary of defense last year is stepping down—and/or being pushed out, and/or being scapegoated—and the response from his former conservative foes isn’t as acerbic as one might have expected.
When Hagel was going through the confirmation process, many conservatives—both in the media and on Capitol Hill—fought tooth and nail to keep him from ascending to Secretary of Defense. Conor Friedersdorf handily charted conservative media’s anti-Hagel agitation here—who could forget Breitbart News’s debunked charge that Hagel had received campaign contributions from a group called “Friends of Hamas.” For the most part, Republicans were not fans—so much so that, Friedersdorf argued, some were eager to buy into any paper-thin argument that he wouldn’t get confirmed.
But confirmed he was, with just four Senate Republicans voting in his favor. Almost two years later, some of his most vocal detractors show little schadenfreude. Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, a vehement opponent of his confirmation, was quite kind to him in a column on Monday morning.
“I'm really sort of sad for Hagel,” he later told me over email. “He wasn't up to the job, but Obama should have known that, and I think [he] did, but didn't care.”
“Obama appointed him for cynical reasons (he's a Republican, and he was someone who'd be weaker than Gates and Panetta), and now he's thrown him overboard for cynical reasons,” Kristol continued. “The whole sad episode should redound badly on Obama much more than on Hagel.”
Michael Goldfarb of Center for American Freedom, who was deputy communications director for Sen. John McCain’s presidential bid, also wasn’t coy about his opposition to Hagel’s confirmation back in early 2013. Now he says Hagel’s brief tenure wasn’t a surprise.
“It was destined he wouldn’t last long or do much of value,” he said via email. “I don't think they understood just how irresponsible they were being in pushing ahead with the pick though, mostly because they believed their own bullshit, they believed their policies were working, and it wasn't until about half-way through Hagel's short run as Secretary of Defense that it became really clear to everyone that Obama's foreign policy was a total train-wreck that just happened to be taking place in slow-motion.”
On the Hill, Senators who opposed his confirmation—all of whom were Republicans—were similarly non-triumphal about Hagel’s fall.
“Today's resignation reflects the ongoing damage caused by President Obama's misguided foreign policy of leading from behind,” said Sen. Ted Cruz, who suggested former Sen. Joseph Lieberman as a potential replacement.
“[I]t is not clear to me that all of this administration’s failings fall at Secretary Hagel’s feet,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, adding that he hopes Hagel’s resignation “is just the beginning of a shakeup of the President’s national security team."
The emerging response from the right: Obama’s foreign policy, not Hagel’s time at the Pentagon, is the problem. And his ouster doesn’t fix much.