Perception usually triumphs reality in politics. That is apparent in Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel’s nascent campaign for president. Hagel is shrewdly positioning himself as the sole antiwar candidate in the Republican Party. Ironically, Republicans just might nominate a candidate running on an anti-war platform in a brazen display of chutzpah and hypocrisy. PsiFigther37 posted an especially trenchant analysis about Hagel in My Left Wing on August 20th. It’s worth reading as he/she catalogued Hagel’s misrepresentations of his own record on various issues. PsiFighter37 concluded that,
“The blogosphere may appreciate what they view as Hagel's truthfulness in addressing our foreign policy. But he is nothing more than your ultraconservative Republican who is scheming for a political run in the future. The man does not deserve praise. He deserves the greatest of scorn for being a politician without principles, someone whose political ambitions are written all over his actions.”I agree with PsiFighter37 but suspect reality will be dwarfed again. Typically, the GOP’s nomenklatura rallies behind a candidate they consider both a winning horse and reliable steward of their interests. Usually, a GOP nominee is deemed acceptable with varying degrees of enthusiasm by their rank and file after the party establishment gives its’ blessing.
Several months ago the favored candidate of Republican apparatchiks was Virginia Senator George Allen. Allen’s combination of affability and vapid intellect is just the sort of politician Republican elites know can win and be controlled. But Allen’s recent stumbles have wounded his national stature and he may not even prevail against James Webb this November.
Hence, there is a void in the Republican Party with no obvious heir to George W. Bush. GOP elites are flocking to John McCain, who in spite of his recent calculated outburst against the Bush Administration has fully embraced neo-con policies. However, GOP core constituents do not respect McCain and his continued support for the Iraq War will undermine his national stature. In 2008 the strongest Republican candidate will likely be the one with the most rhetorical daylight from the Bush Administration’s national security policies. That is not John McCain who has actively courted Bush’s supporters.
Hagel has carved a niche as a traditional Republican realist on foreign policy. Other candidates may attempt to break with the Administration in 2008 but will appear opportunistic in doing so. Chris Shays for example is vulnerable to ridicule because he conveniently flip-flopped on Iraq three months prior to facing the wrath of disgruntled Connecticut voters. It’s an obvious deathbed conversion with no credibility.
Hagel is different because he rhetorically challenged the rationale of Bush’s policies in Iraq even more than some Democrats in recent years. Furthermore, Hagel has rhetorically challenged Bush for portraying dissent as unpatriotic. His record as PSI37 points out suggests support for neo-con imperialism as well as corporatist greed. There is also Hagel’s unsavory relationship with Diebold. Nonetheless, it’s perception that counts and the press appears eager to anoint the former Vietnam veteran as a sensible and tough centrist who is up to the job.
It’s not hard to see Hagel prevailing in the 2008 Iowa caucuses. Even conservative Iowans are far less enthusiastic about Bush’s foreign policy. Disenchantment with the Iraq war will only increase nationwide the next two years and probably more so in Iowa. Meanwhile, Hagel can shamelessly pander to the state’s religious fundamentalists, preach the virtues of lower taxes and smaller government and appeal to Iowans as a regional son from Nebraska. For good measure he might also be able to say, “I’m the only candidate who can appeal to Democrats and independents in a general election.”
Republicans rejected McCain’s in 2000 when he attempted to promote his general election appeal. However, Republicans may feel even more endangered in 2008 then they do today. If Democrats retake congress this November then Hagel can easily appeal to their instinct for survival. Should Democrats fall short this November the GOP will remain accountable for all that is wrong in 2008. That also works to Hagel’s advantage because on foreign policy he’s positioned himself as the only agent of change in the Republican Party.
McCain prevailed in the 2000 New Hampshire primary because of cross over independent voters. Those independent voters in New Hampshire may rally to Hagel’s banner after a victory in the Iowa caucuses and the momentum that goes with it. Hagel would then be on a roll and national polls would further reinforce his stature as the GOP’s strongest candidate in November.
After New Hampshire in 2000, McCain was overwhelmed by a vicious counterattack from the Republican establishment. Does McCain sanction the sort of counter attack against Hagel that Bush waged against him in South Carolina? Hagel stood up for McCain then. Such a counterattack on McCain’s behalf would only backfire. There’s no way he can. And rhetorically Hagel will appear more in step with the majority of voters that decide general elections than McCain because of Iraq – even though they’re records are indistinguishable.
Perhaps the other candidates such as Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee or Sam Brownback might get traction but they haven’t established their own bona fides on national security separate from Bush. Hagel is the one Republican with rhetorical daylight from the Bush years. Yet Hagel can also combine his rhetorical daylight from Bush with appeals to cultural conservatives far easier than McCain. Brownback has the cultural appeal but comes up short on Iraqi policy and Romney is a flip flopper on abortion. I can’t see Republicans nominating Mike Huckabee and for damn sure they’re not nominating Rudolph Guilani no matter what the polls say.
So two years from now the headlines may read, “Republican nominee Chuck Hagel declared he’s the one to get America out of Iraq.” There will be the necessary platitudes about prudence, coordination with allies, and a methodical withdrawal that preserves our strategic interests. But the message that will stick is only the sensible conservative and military veteran Chuck Hagel can get us out of Iraq. That is powerful.
Is the Democrats best answer to this challenge Hillary Clinton? Personally, I’m partial to Senator Russ Feingold and would also be enthusiastic about Al Gore’s candidacy. Perhaps John Edwards could prevail in Iowa and stop her. Wesley Clark also appeals to me. But what if the Hillary juggernaut can’t be stopped and her institutional advantages sweep her to the Democratic Party’s nomination?
If Democrats fail to coalesce around an alternative early on Hillary prevails whether we like it or not. Furthermore, there may also be consequences to Hillary winning too easily. If the anti-war Left does not mount an effective challenge, Hillary will straddle the political fifty yard line on Iraq and foreign policy generally. She’ll take the usual partisan pot shots (perhaps Rumsfeld will still be there!) but not renounce her initial support for the war or propose any timelines to withdraw.
Hillary is boxed in. Unlike Edwards, Hillary can’t apologize for her vote to authorize the war without appearing insincere. As a woman she’s confronted with the stereotype about toughness and doesn’t want to appear soft. And she’s rhetorically advocated for more troops in Iraq. Her partisan criticisms of how Bush has prosecuted the war will fail against a nominee such as Hagel telling voters he will get us out. How can Hillary criticize Republicans for diverting resources from the war on terror to Iraq when she’s advocated for more troop deployments?
An office colleague I respect is a good bellwether for how independent voters think. He describes himself as a political “agnostic” when it comes to Democrats and Republicans. A veteran who served in Vietnam he despises Bush’s record on national security and voted for Kerry in 2004. When I asked him about a hypothetical match up between Hillary and Hagel he immediately said he would vote for Hagel because, “he can get us out of Iraq. Only Nixon could go to China. Maybe it takes a Republican to get us out of Iraq.” His visceral reaction disturbed me. It’s the Republicans who got us into Iraq and Hagel is just as guilty as the rest of them! Perception triumphs reality again.
As PsiFighter37’s August 20th diary illustrates, Hagel has many contradictions and should be held accountable for them. Hillary is the wrong messenger for Democrats to defeat him. She’s too mealy mouthed, too corporatist and too insincere. True strength stems from authenticity combined with a record of clarity and sound judgment. Hillary Clinton embodies none of those virtues. Preposterous as it sounds, a Hagel vs. Clinton race means Republicans prevail on a platform to exit from Iraq. We can’t let them get away with it.
ADDENDUM: I cross posted the above topic on Daily Kos and the comments, critical and favorable make for interesting reading. Click here to review them.