Hagel Performance Panned, But He Has Defenders

Friday, 01 Feb 2013 10:22 AM

By Greg McDonald

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Chuck Hagel's performance at his Thursday confirmation hearing as defense secretary is being widely panned by Republicans and Democrats alike, who said they were surprised at how unprepared he seemed during his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

But Democratic senators insisted that his poor performance was unlikely to change their support for his nomination, and the jury was still out on whether Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, who had a heated exchange with Hagel on the Iraq war, would end up voting against his fellow Vietnam veteran and old friend.

Hagel, himself a former Republican senator from Nebraska, showed up at the hearing looking like he had pulled an all-nighter in preparation for his appearance. Looking at his questioners through puffy eyes and answering in a tired voice, he fumbled more than he scored points and appeared uncomfortable having to field hostile questions from many of his old colleagues.

“Chuck Hagel is much more comfortable asking questions than answering them,” Missouri Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill told NBC News's Andrea Mitchell. “That’s one bad habit you get into when you’ve been in the Senate — you can dish it out but sometimes it’s a little more difficult to take it.”

After watching his performance, several Republicans came out against him, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who announced that he would vote against his confirmation for several reasons, including his views on Cuba, North Korea and Iran.

Even House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon, who doesn't get a vote on the nomination but has considerable influence over his GOP colleagues in the Senate on military matters, came out against him after watching the hearing, calling him "unfit for the job."

He implored President Barack Obama to send up another nominee as soon as possible.

In a statement, the California Republican said he had been open to the idea of supporting Hagel initially, despite some differences with his past view on national security and defense issues. He said he thought Hagel had the necessary "qualifications and abilities to meet the lofty demands" of heading the Pentagon.

"Unfortunately, in confusing and contradictory testimony, he created more concerns than he allayed," McKeon said. "His refusal to shut the door on further defense cuts put him in stark odds with the current defense secretary and military leaders.

"His ambiguous and evolving positions on Iran raised more questions than answers," McKeon continued. "And his shifting evasive answers on the future of America's nuclear deterrent were deeply troubling."

Comments on Hagel's performance also lit up Twitter, with than more than a few Republicans tweeting that GOP senators should filibuster against his confirmation, something that South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham has threatened.

"Hagel's making [Vice President Joe] Biden look rhetorically sure-footed," read one message sent out during the hearing.

"It's probably dawning on Sens. who didn't serve w/Hagel that he's just not very bright," tweeted Fox News' Brit Hume.

Still, there were some Republicans outside the Senate who came to Hagel's defense.

Conservative columnist and former three-time GOP presidential candidate Pat Buchanan told Fox News's Sean Hannity Thursday night that he thought Hagel was "a good man" and should be confirmed, despite the beating he took from mostly Republicans in his hearing.

"He is a patriot, he has got an independent mind," Buchanan said of Hagel, who would be the first Vietnam veteran to head the Pentagon.

Buchanan told Hannity he disagreed, like many other Republicans, with Hagel's position against the U.S. surge policy in the Iraq war, but supported a previous statement by Hagel that the war was perhaps the biggest blunder in U.S. military history.

"I myself said that the Iraq war, the invasion and occupation of that country, and killing thousands and thousands of people to deprive it of weapons it did not even have, weapons of mass destruction that were not there, I thought that was one of the greatest blunders in the American military," Buchanan said.

Buchanan, a former speechwriter for President Richard Nixon, also expressed some empathy for Hagel's difficulty before the committee, recalling how, as a Nixon aide, he was also given a hard time during his testimony before the Watergate Committee.

When asked by Hannity about Hagel's past statements on nuclear disarmament, Buchanan laughed.

"Sean," he said, "Ronald Reagan wanted to eliminate nuclear weapons. Would you disqualify him to be secretary of defense?"

Former Congressman Joe Scarborough also offered some small defense of Hagel as well on his MSNBC program "Morning Joe," suggesting that he was badgered by Republicans who were more interested in scoring political points against Obama than actually listening to what Hagel had to say.

Still, the conservative Republican and talk show host said he too was surprised by Hagel's poor performance.

"He wasn't prepared in a lot of ways that are concerning," Scarborough said. But he added that Republicans on the Armed Services Committee "embarrassed themselves by badgering him."

Although it was a rough day for Hagel, the White House believes he has enough support to be confirmed. Even if all 12 Republicans on the committee end up voting against him, the 14 Democrats are expected to be unanimous in their support for this nomination to be sent to the Senate floor.

Several Republicans, including Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran, could join with Democrats in confirming him to replace outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta.



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