Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

GOP, don't fight the Hagel nomination

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
updated 12:00 PM EST, Tue January 8, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • President Barack Obama is nominating Chuck Hagel for defense secretary
  • Julian Zelizer: Republicans should avoid challenging Hagel's confirmation
  • By opposing Hagel, GOP would strengthen Obama's edge on national security
  • Zelizer: GOP would look foolish challenging one of its own and opposing bipartisanship

Editor's note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and of "Governing America."

(CNN) -- Some Republicans are itching for a fight on President Barack Obama's nomination of former Sen. Chuck Hagel to be defense secretary.

Sen. Lindsey Graham warned that Hagel would be the most "antagonistic secretary of defense toward the state of Israel." Neoconservative guru William Kristol is already cranking up the attack machine, focusing on Hagel's statements about Israel and Iran. Although some Democrats are confused about the Hagel appointment, with some upset about remarks he made several years ago about homosexuality, if there is to be a fight it will probably come from the right.

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

Republicans would do well to avoid this path. In all likelihood, such a nomination fight would only hurt the Republicans, who are already reeling politically from the election and the battle over the fiscal cliff.

A view of what's really behind Hagel nomination fight

Why is a fight over Hagel a bad idea for Republicans? The most obvious is that they would be attacking a member of their own party. Even though Hagel has been a maverick and someone who was critical of his party, pushing in recent years for a centrist approach to foreign policy, he is a genuine Republican, as his voting record reveals.

A mobilized GOP opposition fighting against the inclusion of one of its own in a Democratic administration would only fuel frustration with the rightward drift of the party. After a move that demonstrates Obama's true interest in bipartisanship, this would bolster the critics who say the GOP is to blame for gridlock in Washington.

Hagel is also a staunch advocate for veterans and the military. Republicans have always tried to make the claim that Democrats are weak on defense and that they are the party of national security.

Mack: Hagel 'will get nomination in end'
Graham: Hagel a controversial choice
Hagel likely defense secretary pick

Although Hagel has been a skeptical hawk, he is a Republican hawk nonetheless. One does not have to work too hard to imagine what the optics would be like if Republicans go after Hagel, who would be the first Vietnam veteran to hold the position.

It would give Obama the opportunity to position himself as the person really standing behind a robust national security state. Since taking office, Obama has repeatedly tripped up Republicans on this issue, outflanking them to the right on the war on terrorism. This would simply continue that trend.

Read more: Who's in, who's out of cabinet

The final reason that taking on Hagel is extraordinarily risky for the GOP is that Hagel's most famous maverick move was coming out as a critic of President George W. Bush's war in Iraq despite the fact that he had supported the original resolution to use force if necessary.

Given how unpopular that war remains, a symbol for many Americans of the mistakes that Republicans made on foreign policy when in power, the last thing that Republicans probably want is a renewed debate on Iraq.

By bringing that war to an end, Obama has provided one of the greatest services to the GOP that it could have hoped for, allowing it to move on to other national security issues.

Even some of Hagel's potential liabilities might turn out to be much less significant than expected. After all, despite his comments about Israel, the truth is that Hagel voted to provide Israel with aid and he has voted for sanctions with Iran. The record is much murkier than some of the statements on the Sunday morning talk shows would suggest.

Republicans have often shot from the hip in their attacks on the Obama administration. It is easy to imagine the president and his advisers anticipating attacks on Hagel that will only work to their favor.

Senate Republicans might want to think twice about this vote on a former colleague and focus their attention on more constructive debates.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery support the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 1:10 PM EDT, Sat April 19, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
updated 7:23 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT