I was able to watch the Senate’s questioning of Secretary of Defense designate Chuck Hagel on C-Span on and off, but clearly “on” enough to recognize a disaster unfolding. Whatever one might be tempted to say about Hillary Clinton’s performance during a day of bobbing and weaving about Benghazi under sometimes hostile questioning before both House and Senate committees, no one can question Clinton’s intelligence, knowledge and preparation. In contrast, no one who watched Hagel can honestly feel confident about his possession any of those qualities. He was uniformly awful, to the point of embarrassment. I found myself feeling sorry for him. He was unprepared. He was vague…he was contradictory; he did not seem to have a grasp on much of anything the job entailed. Several times, Democratic Senators rescued him by correcting his wording or reminding him of what he should have said. In short, he appeared incompetent.
Immediately, various news organizations and reporters told us that it didn’t matter, that Hagel “had the votes.” If this is true, then the confirmation hearings are a sham, and our elected officials no longer care about trivial matters like the fate of the nation and national defense, but only political maneuvering and point-scoring. Why doesn’t it matter? If a highly touted applicant for an important corporate job botches the job interview, he doesn’t get the job. Are major management jobs in the U.S. Government so much less challenging and important that a lesser standard should adhere?
Why doesn’t Hagel’s performance matter to everyone in the process? Secretary of Defense is a tough, tough job. Donald Rumsfeld is brilliant, and he crashed and burned at it: does it make any sense to confirm a nominee who diminished trust in his competence every time he opened his mouth? If not one single Democratic Senator has sufficient doubts about Hagel’s fitness to serve in such a vital position after his performance last week, then a fair conclusion would be that no Democratic Senator will put politics above his duty to his constituency and his nation.
Similarly, if a frighteningly bad performance at a Senate confirmation hearing has no bearing on the final vote, then why have confirmation hearings at all? They must be pure posturing, with all Republicans savaging Democratic nominees as Democrats try to play defense, and vice-versa. Normally, it doesn’t matter: if the nominee is minimally coherent and competent under questioning, he or she will be confirmed, and the hearing is just window dressing. In this case, however, Hagel’s disturbing ineptitude was a surprise to all. Could it really be true that neither Democrats nor the President care if the next Secretary of Defense isn’t up to the job?
To be fair, Hagel has a record of success in business, he is a combat veteran, and he is a Hill veteran too. There is nothing wrong with his resume. I also agree that all things being equal, a President should have his choice for major positions confirmed, as long as a compelling reason develops not to.
That makes the salient questions these:
- Isn’t apparent incompetence a compelling reason any more?
- Aren’t all the Senators, regardless of party affiliation, duty-bound to make sure that America’s defenses are presided over by a leader and manager who can do the job, and do it well?
- Does our system of government have any integrity left?
I guess we’ll find out.
Graphic: The Daily Beast