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 8:35 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
updated 7:57 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
updated 9:50 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
updated 11:07 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
updated 1:55 PM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
updated 3:53 PM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
updated 3:33 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
updated 6:11 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
updated 3:14 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
updated 8:14 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
updated 4:16 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
updated 1:29 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
updated 2:04 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
updated 11:18 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
updated 9:24 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT