by Steve M, Thu May 22, 2008 at 09:14:39 PM EDT
Let me get some disclaimers out of the way up front. First, I am a Clinton supporter. Second, unless a comet strikes, I expect to be voting for Barack Obama in November. Third, who Obama chooses as VP does not affect my vote; I plan to be blindly loyal to the Democratic Party regardless.
Fourth, this diary is not a joke. I can already hear people saying, "Don't you realize Hagel votes with the Bush agenda 95% of the time???" Yes, of course I do. Let me explain why I don't think it matters, and why I believe Hagel would be Obama's smartest choice for a running mate.
1. Yes, Hagel is a conservative, but the VP has exactly as much authority as the President chooses to delegate to him. There would be no need to worry that Hagel would suddenly privatize Social Security or nominate conservative judges when no one is watching. He could make useful contributions in the area of foreign policy and perform the usual ceremonial duties of the office.
This is a choice that is primarily about getting elected in the first place. Anyone who Obama thinks would be a useful part of the team, he can always appoint to a Cabinet post or have as an advisor. There is no particular requirement that the VP has to be someone who can contribute to the domestic policy agenda - although there's little doubt that Hagel could be helpful in terms of working with the Senate and reaching across the aisle in negotiations.
2. On Iraq and the general subject of US foreign policy, the labels liberal and conservative are no longer a meaningful way of talking about things. As Glenn Greenwald argued long ago, the critical question is whether you are with the neo-cons or against them, and Hagel is unquestionably against them.
American political conflicts are usually described in terms of "liberal versus conservative," but that is really no longer the division which drives our most important political debates. The predominant political conflicts over the last five years have been driven by a different dichotomy -- those who believe in neoconservatism versus those who do not. Neoconservatism is responsible for virtually every significant political controversy during the Bush administration -- from our invasion of Iraq to the array constitutional abuses perpetrated in the name of fighting terrorism -- and that ideological dispute is even what is driving the war over Joe Lieberman's Senate seat. It is not traditional conservatism or liberalism, but rather one's views on neoconservativsm, which have become the single most important factor in where one falls on the political spectrum.
The reason why former Republicans like Wesley Clark and Chuck Hagel (yes, Clark was technically never a Republican, but he was a Reagan supporter) have been broadly accepted by liberal Democrats is that they stand in implacable opposition to the Iraq war, the neocon agenda, and the Bush Doctrine of preemptive war. Hagel can make the case against McCain's brand of neoconservatism just as well as any liberal Democrat did. In fact, he can probably do so more effectively, because he can demonstrate to voters that opposition to the Bush/McCain Doctrine is not a "liberal" position, it is a common-sense position in the common national interest.
3. Hagel can certainly go toe-to-toe with McCain on issues of foreign policy, and he can somewhat insulate Obama from McCain's ad hominem attacks on his youth, foreign policy inexperience, and lack of military service. But more importantly, Hagel represents a way for Obama to add foreign policy experience to the ticket WITHOUT showing weakness.
Assume, for example, Obama picks someone like Wes Clark, who would certainly be a strong choice. The media narrative instantly becomes that Obama made this choice in order to shore up his national security bona fides, and it reinforces the idea that Obama is someone who needs help on foreign policy. With Hagel as the pick, this doesn't happen, because virtually all the focus would be on the novelty of the bipartisan ticket, the first in ages. The pick instantly reinforces Obama's promise to be a new kind of politican, and backs up his claim to be a unity-seeker.
4. Hagel helps Obama with the constituencies where he most needs it. No, he wouldn't help bring back the Clinton supporters who think she got a raw deal in this primary, but in my book, those people are either coming back or they aren't. Where Obama struggles is with conservative Democrats of the type found in places like Kentucky and West Virginia; it's not just about race, as some would have it, but about national security where these Democrats simply have more conservative views. The Hagel choice instantly reassures moderate voters that Obama does not, in fact, have some radical liberal agenda. In fact, I can't imagine a more effective way for Obama to drive home the point that his beliefs on foreign policy are widely shared.
In terms of working-class voters who lack confidence in Obama's ability to address economic issues, Hagel doesn't directly provide assistance, but he does free up Obama to focus his message on a more populist, domestically-focused agenda - the area where Democrats are traditionally stronger - while Hagel deals with some of the day-to-day exchanges with McCain on foreign policy. Just because Obama is right and McCain is wrong on the merits does not change the fact that if every day becomes a back-and-forth with McCain on whether we should talk with Iran, we're taking our eye off the ball and failing to address the serious concerns voters have about their economic future.
5. Hagel appears to be interested in the job, and he is a strong campaigner with the gravitas to deliver meaningful attacks and rebuttals on foreign policy issues.
"We know from past campaigns that presidential candidates will say many things," Hagel said of some of McCain's recent rhetoric, namely his policy on talking to Iran. "But once they have the responsibility to govern the country and lead the world, that difference between what they said and what responsibilities they have to fulfill are vastly different. I'm very upset with John with some of the things he's been saying. And I can't get into the psychoanalysis of it. But I believe that John is smarter than some of the things he is saying. He is, he understands it more. John is a man who reads a lot, he's been around the world. I want him to get above that and maybe when he gets into the general election, and becomes the general election candidate he will have a higher-level discourse on these things."
Hagel, speaking to a small gathering at the residence of the Italian ambassador, took umbrage with several positions taken by the McCain campaign, including the Arizona Senator's criticism of Obama for pledging to engage with Iran. Engagement is not, and should not be confused for, capitulation, he argued.
"I never understand how anyone in any realm of civilized discourse could sort through the big issues and challenges and threats and figure out how to deal with those without engaging in some way...."
Hagel then offered a wry tweak of his GOP colleague. "I am confident that if Obama is elected president that is the approach we will take. And my friend John McCain said some other things about that. We'll see, but in my opinion it has to be done. It is essential."
Sometimes when Democrats reach across the aisle, as with Bill Clinton's choice of a Republican as Secretary of Defense, it comes across as a sign of weakness, an acknowledgment that Democrats aren't really trusted on certain issues. In this particular case, because Obama hasn't shied away from taking assertive stands on foreign policy issues throughout this campaign, I think it comes across as a show of strength rather than weakness. It's a way to grab the broad center of the debate and demonstrate that McCain is the one with the truly radical and extremist agenda.
The more I think about it, the more I believe this would be an inspired choice, and a choice without the downside which some might fear. Your thoughts?