Former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel probably will be confirmed as President Barack Obama’s next secretary of defense. That is as it should be. In the absence of actual scandal or demonstrable character flaws, the president – any president – should be given wide latitude in Cabinet choices.
Hagel has faced criticism about remarks he made about Israeli influence on U.S. affairs, the direction of U.S. foreign policy and gay rights.
He once referred to a Clinton ambassadorial nominee as “openly, aggressively gay.” At one time, he also opposed same-sex marriage and supported “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
But gay rights is a fast-moving social evolution, and Hagel is hardly alone in playing catch-up. He has recanted his position on gays in the military and apologized to the ambassador. He should be allowed to move on.
His comments about Israel are more substantive, but no more disqualifying. That a powerful lobby supports the state of Israel is undeniable, and questioning its influence is legitimate. But it includes a large number of Christians as well as secular Americans who see U.S. security linked with that of Israel. For Hagel to refer to that element as the “Jewish lobby” was a factual misstep, but hardly a disqualifying slur. In any case, the endorsement of Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., – the Senate’s highest-ranking Jewish member – probably has put that issue to rest.
Hagel’s real problem may be with neoconservatives who resent his early criticism of the Iraq war and fear his approach to Iran would be – by their lights – insufficiently bellicose. Their real problem, however, may be that his stances on those issues put him closer to the American people.
Also at issue are questions about Hagel’s perceived willingness to cut defense spending. But defense cuts are coming regardless of who runs the Pentagon – or who is president. Better to have a combat veteran such as Hagel in charge than someone whose understanding may more closely align with contractors than with the troops.
Beyond that, though, this nomination is the president’s call, and making it a political football does no good. The Constitution says little about Cabinet members, beyond the fact that their appointment must be confirmed by the Senate and that the president may seek their advice.
That is pretty open-ended, presumably by intent, and has generally been treated as such. The thinking is the president embodies the executive branch, is elected by the people and is entitled to surround himself with advisers he feels he can trust.
That is not to say the president’s Cabinet picks are above criticism. The chief executive’s choices for cabinet officers say a great deal about the administration, its thinking and direction, and the president himself.
It does not follow, however, that Congress gets to pick a Cabinet of its liking. That remains the president’s prerogative.
There are, of course, situations in which presidential cabinet nominees are rightly denied. In 1989, the Senate rejected Texas Republican Sen. John Tower as secretary of defense. But Tower was widely seen as a womanizer and a drunk – hardly policy questions – and, in any case, had offended many in his own party in internecine fights.
It also is true that Supreme Court nominations are different. While there, too, a president’s pick deserves a certain deference, Supreme Court nominees involve lifetime appointments to an entire third branch of government. In those instances, the role of Congress is necessarily heightened.
Cabinet members serve at the pleasure of the president and effect his policies. Absent some compelling reason to the contrary, the president should be allowed to pick whomever he wants – including, in this case, Chuck Hagel.