The debate over the Hagel nomination raises both substantive issues relative to his views on specific issues, as well as an attack on the entire of advise and consent system. Both of these are important but it seems that the second institutional matter is becoming totally lost on the process. In fact, the constitutional requirement for senatorial advise and consent has today largely been replaced by a mindset of Senators engaging in strict political jousting over nominees.
Historically, Senators gave a President a pass on his nominees, especially in his first term. The operating assumption was that Presidents nominated people whom they believed could assist them in promoting their programs. Baring gross incompetence or outrageous mis-speaking they would be virtually automatically approved by the Senate. Senators knew that they would have frequent and regular opportunities to hold Cabinet members accountability for their actions and statements during the appearances before Congress.
Later in an Administration and during a second term, nominees might be held more accountable, but here too not former Senator being blocking one of their former colleagues. Only one recent former U.S. Senator was denied Senate confirmation, Senator John Tower (R-TX), in 1989, and that was because of charges of personal misconduct. This then is the Hagel institutional dilemma. He is a former Republican Senator from Nebraska; a distinguished Viet-Nam War enlisted man; he is being appointed by a Democratic President to Secretary of Defense ; and to be confirmed by a Senate controlled by the President’s own party.
Admittedly, Hagel will receive very serious questioning from a multiplicity of sides, but at this point with what is publically known, he easily should be confirmed. On the other hand, as we saw in fiscal cliff deliberations last week, we do no longer live in ordinary times.
For those in the Jewish community– or for that matter in the LGBT community–there indeed are serious issues to be addressed, but they ought not to encumber his confirmation. Ultimately, he is not setting policy but carrying it out. If he said thing previously which were offensive, degrading, or hostile, he will have a chance to respond to questions on those issues. In some respects, he may even now be more supportive of gay rights or the U.S.-Israel relationship now, than he might have been previously.
Finally, groups opposing Hagel need to be careful whether they want to alienate the President over Hagel’s nomination, knowing that in all likelihood he will be confirmed. The pro-Israel community, for example, may well want to push for answers and then back off, as they will want to insure the President’s good will towards and support for Israel on Iran, or Arab radicalism in the days and months ahead. The Pentagon military brass has boosted Israel’s needs actively over recent years and they will not be changing. Pro-Israel activists may find little need or mileage in fighting the President’s nomination now, so as to insure his strong leadership in more critical, substantive moments ahead.