After senator Jim Jeffords deserted the Republican Party in 2001, Chuck Hagel was furious. Not at his Senate colleague but at Republicans for not accommodating Jeffords’ liberalism. Hagel had plead with Jeffords to remain a Republican, promising to help him advance his liberal “dreams” for the GOP.
“Jim, do you really believe you can further your dreams and aspirations by doing this?” Time quoted Hagel as saying to Jeffords. “We can fix this. Give us a chance.” Unpersuaded, Jeffords switched parties, and Hagel proceeded to blast the GOP to reporters in terms they like to hear. “We need to take some inventory and to look into ourselves and our party and how we have handled things,” he said. The party has a “perception problem in this country, that we are a narrower-gauged party, that we are less tolerant.”
Hagel proposed that the GOP pump air into the Big Tent by junking moral philosophy. “The Republican Party should be a multifaceted party representing many interests and many views, but generally should be anchored with a philosophy about government,” he said. “It shouldn’t be a philosophy about morals.”
“Is our party in tune with America?” he asked fellow Republicans. Grassroots Republicans, many of whom voted for George Bush on “moral values” and oppose Jeffordsizing the party, will likely turn this question on Hagel should he run in the Republican presidential primary of 2008: Is he in tune with America? And why should the conservative grassroots vote for an anti-Republican Republican who isn’t in tune with them?
In what looks like a half-baked Hamlet act, Hagel speaks of running for president to “redefine” a party that “has lost its moorings,” a project unlikely to resonate with Red-State Republicans. Like John McCain, Hagel is known as a Republican “populist” even though his agenda to reform the party appeals not to the grassroots but to the tony talk-show set.
THE GROWING CHATTER about a Chuck Hagel presidential bid isn’t bubbling up from grassroots Republican activists. It is corning from elite journalists in Washington who repeat ad nauseam Hagel’s assertion that the Republican Party is adrift. They regard Hagel as a tertiary John McCain—an “independent” and “maverick” Republican they can book for their talk shows if the Arizona senator isn’t available.
To these journalists, who are always looking for surrogates to “reform” the GOP, a Hagel run sounds like a very promising idea. “Could Chuck Hagel Take the White House?” asked the Washington Post Style section hopefully last November. “On the Road to 2008, He’s Not Walking the Party Line,” it burbled, betraying its primary interest in Hagel as a critic of fellow Republicans. The Post’s Style section was impressed enough with Hagel to bestow upon him one of its highest compliments—that he does his “own reading, thinking, and even writing.” It also admired Hagel’s “capacity to charm Nebraskans, foreigners, even Democrats,” neglecting to include journalists on the list of the charmed.
When journalists in Washington, D.C. assert that a Republican is capable of “thinking” without assistance, it means he thinks like them, parroting their program for the GOP. During the 2004 presidential campaign, Hagel became an indispensable voicebox for the dominant media, frequently echoing reporters’ thoughts on Bush’s incompetence and insufficient regard for the feelings of “the world.” A decorated Vietnam veteran who looks back upon that war as an act of “dishonesty,” Hagel also served the media as an invaluable weapon against John O’Neill and the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.
“I am very disappointed not just as a Vietnam veteran, but as a Republican U.S. senator, as a citizen of this country, with this kind of nonsense put on the air,” Hagel said after the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ads appeared. “The fact is John Kerry served honorably and served with courage.” Hagel, basking in the media’s appreciation of his “bipartisan” largeness of spirit, would for good measure emphasize that Kerry is “certainly qualified to be president. He’s smart, he’s tough, he’s capable.” Journalists noticed that Hagel was almost rooting for Kerry and trotted him out to defend Kerry after Bush attacked his embarrassing record on national defense. The Kerry campaign noticed too. A Democrat who worked on the Kerry campaign tells TAS that Hagel was seen as a potential “secretary of state or defense under Kerry.”
LIKE McCAIN, Hagel’s voting record appears solidly conservative. The American Conservative Union gives him an 85 rating (McCain’s is 86). But Nebraskans who have followed Hagel’s career attribute his conservative votes to pragmatism, not philosophy. One conservative activist in Nebraska describes him as a faux populist in the mold of Bob Kerrey (another favorite son of the Cornhusker state), “far more interested in self-promotion than promoting a conservative agenda.”
Nebraskan journalists who followed Hagel’s first political run remember him as a moderate—a moderate who became a conservative after finding himself the underdog in a Republican primary against Don Stenberg, a prominent Nebraska conservative and sitting attorney general. “The thought going in was that Hagel was going to set himself up as the moderate candidate in that race,” says one journalist. But when that proved problematic, he says, “Chuck’s philosophy was that he wasn’t going to be outconservatived by this conservative.”
David Kotok, an Omaha World-Herald reporter who covered the Republican primary in 1995, says that “Hagel made sure that there was no light between him and Stenberg. He needed to win the primary.”
Raised in small-town Nebraska, Hagel worked in government and business before running for the U.S. Senate. He was a radio DJ, staffer to moderate former Nebraska Congressman John McCollister, an administrator at the Veterans’ Affairs Administration, head of the World USO, a lobbyist for Firestone, and deputy director of the 1990 G-7 Summit, among other jobs. But his most successful venture was in the cell phone industry, striking it rich after using $5,000 to start up Vanguard Cellular Systems.
Don Stenberg, highlighting that Hagel had donated $1,000 to Democrat Bob Kerrey, cast him in the Republican primary as “the candidate of the East Coast establishment”—a liberal carpetbagger who had only recently returned to his home state after living for 20 years in Virginia. Colin Powell, fresh from rebuking Republicans for evacuating the “sensible center,” gave $1,000 to Hagel, which became another stick for Stenberg. “The Colin Powell support fits the pattern we are seeing here in Nebraska,” Stenberg said. “More and more liberal Republicans are supporting Chuck Hagel.”
Worried that he needed to siphon off conservative votes from Stenberg, Hagel “tightened” his stance on abortion, as he put it. He also repudiated his previous support for an assault weapons ban, a faux pas committed early in the campaign when Hagel, asked if he could support Bill Clinton’s gun ban, said, “I probably would have voted for it.”
HAGEL’S CHANGES to his stance on abortion and gun control upset a few moderate Republicans. Former Nebraska legislator Brad Ashford abandoned a fundraiser he had planned for Hagel after hearing about his new positions. “Ashford, who advocated gun restrictions and abortion rights in the Legislature and in his unsuccessful bid last year for the 2nd Congressional District GOP nomination, said he had thought Hagel’s positions were closer to his,” reported the Omaha World-Herald. “He said he based that on a meeting they had six months ago when Ashford pledged his support to Hagel.”
In an interview with TAS, Ashford recalled the controversy. “I remember we had lunch and Chuck had sympathized with my position on gun restrictions. I was pleased to find a Republican who was more progressive,” he says. “It was always my impression that he was a pragmatist. I honestly think Chuck was never an ideological person at all. I don’t think he even knew his positions on things. But he had to firm up his positions against Stenberg. He had to take positions on issues he didn’t care much about. He is not an activist conservative.”
Thinking back on his canceled fundraiser, Ashford says, “I was disappointed. But I should have let it go.” Hagel is “a moderate Republican,” says Ashford, now a supporter, and the “moderate Republicans in Nebraska adore him.” Ashford sees Hagel as akin to his old boss John McCollister and Bob Kerrey.
“He is very much of an internationalist. He is like Bob Kerrey was in Nebraska. He can appeal to both Democrats and Republicans. He can run around the world with Joe Biden,” says Ashford. “And like McCollister, Chuck’s politics are a very pragmatic, Main Street Republicanism, Bob Michel Republicanism. He is pro-business but he is not a conservative who would push the clock back 100 years.”
After defeating Stenberg without much trouble, Hagel faced conservative Democrat Ben Nelson in the general election, an unmemorable race save for a few blips like the Nebraska Right to Life Political Action Committee supporting Nelson over Hagel. Nelson at times tried to run to the right of Hagel. But Hagel didn’t let Nelson beat past him, running a staunchly conservative campaign, which included calls for the abolition of departments like Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Education.
But in a moment that foreshadowed later “growth,” Hagel broke with Bob Dole on a proposed 15 percent income tax cut. “I can’t sign on right now to those tax cuts,” he said, “I can’t be irresponsible about it.” Hagel now regards pledges not to raise taxes as “irresponsible.” Preening as a maverick in the aforementioned Washington Post Style Section piece, Hagel said, “At some point somebody’s going to ask you in a debate: ‘Well, senator, will you pledge if you’re elected president never to raise taxes?’ I couldn’t take that pledge. It would be irresponsible. That may cost me the nomination.”
Once Hagel was safely seated in the Senate, much of his campaign-trail conservative rhetoric evaporated. By 2000, he was reassuring reporters that “we thought it was a good idea to abolish HUD and Education and half of the federal government four years ago. But now we don’t.” Abolishing agencies, he said, was just “part of the dogma that swept Republicans into office… Political parties should be relevant to our times.”
WASHINGTON POST columnist David Broder observed with approval bordering on awe that the new senator from Nebraska was a bipartisan internationalist. Broder crowned him a Washington wise man after Hagel warned his Republican colleagues to lay off Clinton lest “we weaken or neuter the president in front of the world.” Broder was also pleased by Hagel’s willingness to torpedo the campaign of a religious conservative in Nebraska. “Last spring, Hagel did something almost no senator would do: He intervened in a three-way Republican primary for governor, denouncing the campaign tactics of the early favorite, Rep. Jon Christensen, a favorite of the religious right. Christensen lost,” Broder wrote.
Hagel’s most consistent interest in the Senate has been internationalism, an enthusiasm that grew out of his discontent with Vietnam, and his jet-setting as an international businessman in the cell phone industry, say observers. Upon entering the Senate, Hagel immediately took a seat on the Foreign Relations committee, which was easy enough since no other Republican bothered with it.
The seat became Hagel’s platform for a windy and fatuous internationalism that has been mistaken ever since for high-mindedness. Many of his colleagues regard him not so much as thoughtful as an arrogant know-it-all who enjoys uncorking statements like, “Our 40-year policy toward Cuba is senseless” (Hagel praised Jimmy Carter’s message during his inane visit to Cuba.) Hagel is called by some in Washington the “Senator from the State Department” for his regurgitations of the liberal internationalist line popular with diplomats.
Hagel’s internationalism is almost indistinguishable from John Kerry’s. It largely rests on a misplaced confidence in ramshackle international institutions, dubious international alliances, and empty trendiness. In the late 1990s, he joined forces with another Vermont liberal, Pat Leahy, to support an international treaty against land mines. He touted a chemical weapons treaty against the wishes of then-Foreign Relations Chairman Jesse Helms, and he led the charge for $18 billion in funding for the International Monetary Fund.
His internationalism contains a weakness for the fashionable causes of the internationalist jet-set. For example, when TAS requested an interview with him in December, he wasn’t available, said his press office, explaining that he had too much to do before his trip to London to discuss “global warming” with Tony Blair. Hagel is coming around to the view that some global warming science is real if a bit overstated. In a speech last October, he said that “it is likely there has been a human impact on the Earth’s atmosphere, and we should consider steps to mitigate that impact. The sooner we begin, the smaller and less painful the changes will have to be in the future.”
The solution is internationalism, says Hagel, since “global warming does not recognize national borders…. The U.S. alone cannot improve the Earth’s climate…. The only way forward is through international cooperation and collaboration, engaging, helping and partnering with all nations.”
If international issues fascinate Hagel, many domestic ones bore him. But he recognizes that he needs to cobble together some sort of domestic agenda in order to run in 2008, and so is busy forming proposals on semi-privatized Social Security, a good issue to select since it may confuse some conservative primary voters into supporting him.
GENERALLY, HOWEVER, Hagel’s interest in advancing a conservative domestic agenda is negligible. When TAS asked a Nebraskan who knows Hagel if he ever talks about conservative domestic priorities, he replied, “Absolutely not. It is obvious that his intellectual interests are on the international scene. When you have a conversation with him he is not going to bring up things like the marriage amendment.” David Kotok of the Omaha World-Herald detected in Hagel an unusual level of internationalism, even for a candidate running in a farm state dependent on foreign markets, when he saw Hagel on the campaign trail in 1995 deliver an ambitious speech on internationalism. “I can’t remember a Nebraska Senate candidate who ever gave a speech on international issues on the stump,” he says. Conservative activists in Nebraska are loath to criticize Hagel on the record due to his power and popularity in the state. But pressed they will acknowledge that he gives many conservative issues “second-class status.” Hagel has thrown plenty of bones to conservative activists over the years, and makes sure not to blurt out in Omaha what he says at cocktail parties in Georgetown, but conservative “grumbling,” says a former Nebraska GOP chairman, is getting “louder and louder.” Hagel’s sniping at Bush angered conservatives and “there would have been severe political consequences for him if Bush had lost,” he says.
Retired Omaha World-Herald publisher Harold W. Andersen wrote that Nebraska Republicans were “increasingly skeptical, if not sharply critical, of his attention-grabbing performance on the national news-media stage.”
On social issues, Hagel increasingly plays the enlightened Republican. When Jesse Helms once proposed an amendment to block federal funding to school districts that discriminate against the Boy Scouts, Hagel made a point of opposing it, prompting a column in the Omaha World-Herald from a Nebraskan who observed, “Senator Hagel’s comments tell me that he has no stomach for the political and cultural war that rages all around him. Indeed, it would seem that he is embarrassed by it.” This feeling has intensified amongst social conservatives and broken out into the open now that Hagel has rejected the constitutional amendment to protect marriage.
James Dobson, head of Focus on the Family, has accused Hagel of an insincere commitment to social conservatism. Angry at Hagel’s “political posturing” over the marriage amendment, Dobson bought an ad in the Omaha World-Herald to criticize Hagel (and Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson). Dobson said it is “disingenuous at best for Senator Hagel to proudly proclaim that his children have a mother and a father when there is absolutely no guarantee that every other American child will be so fortunate apart from the Federal Marriage Amendment” When Hagel and Nelson objected to the Focus on the Family ad, Dobson responded that “their complaints are just smoke and mirrors intended to deceive Nebraskans, and all Americans, into believing that they truly support marriage.”
Dobson said that Hagel had refused to meet with him to discuss the marriage amendment. Hagel denied it. But when TAS talked to social conservatives in Nebraska, they voiced the same complaint. “It has been harder and harder to get an audience with him,” says one. “Even Ben Nelson will meet with us. Why isn’t Hagel supporting the marriage amendment? That’s a good question. We haven’t got an answer. There is concern among social conservatives about, Where is his head? Where is his mind?”
Perhaps they should ask Jim Jeffords. In his memoir of bolting the GOP, My Declaration of Independence, Jeffords singles Hagel out as one of the few Republicans who didn’t disappoint him. He thanks Hagel for working with him and Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, among others, to increase federal funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Hagel’s “brand of independence and common sense is too rare a commodity,” writes Jeffords. An endorsement the press buys but the grassroots won’t.
George Neumayr is executive editor of The American Spectator.