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Is Obama Using Chuck Hagel to Bait Republicans?

By Francis Wilkinson
December 28, 2012 2:11 PM EST

Republican Senator Chuck Hagel may not be the best candidate to lead the Pentagon. He's an idiosyncratic figure, which is the source of both his appeal and various concerns about him. Here is National Review editor Rich Lowry, writing in Politico, trying to understand Obama's motive in floating Hagel's name for secretary of defense:

It’s not clear what draws Obama to Hagel. Maybe it’s the superciliousness. Or maybe the gesture toward bipartisanship his nomination would supposedly represent. Or maybe he’s just too easily impressed.

Or maybe second-term Obama is settling into the stiletto ways of Washington and is eager to give Republicans another opportunity to portray themselves as an angry, dysfunctional mess unwilling to participate in an orderly democratic process.

Presidents generally pay a price for nasty nomination fights. But a Hagel nomination -- or extended trial balloon -- might offer political rewards as well as costs. The attacks on Hagel from the right have been mostly ideological, questioning his loyalty to Israel, his ambiguous stance toward Iran, including a seeming reluctance to use harsh sanctions, and his willingness to be an aggressive champion of defense spending. As a senator, his refusal to view the Iraq war as a vital and clear-cut march of freedom annoyed Republican colleagues. “Hagel’s heresy on the Iraq war overshadowed the rest of his record,” Connie Bruck wrote in the New Yorker,

Yet many Americans will have a difficult time understanding how a conservative Republican from Nebraska nominated by a liberal Democrat from Illinois could possibly be so far outside the political mainstream. They may conclude that it's his accusers, including Republican Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain, who are too close to the edge (and so soon after playing too near a cliff!). Meanwhile, the spectacle of Republicans attacking one of their own for ideological impurity will do little to refurbish the party brand in those states where the purple people reside.

Maybe Obama genuinely thinks Hagel would be a stellar defense secretary. Or maybe he'll leave Hagel flapping in the breeze, as he did Susan Rice before she withdrew from consideration for secretary of state. But if the president wants an encore to the fiscal cliff drama to reinforce his portrayal of Republicans as too venal, too partisan and too intransigent to govern, an ugly fight over Hagel might do the trick.

(Francis Wilkinson is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)

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