In today’s New York Times, David Brooks argues persuasively that Chuck Hagel has been nominated to help Barack Obama dramatically cut defense spending.
Chuck Hagel has been nominated to supervise the beginning of this generation-long process of defense cutbacks. If a Democratic president is going to slash defense, he probably wants a Republican at the Pentagon to give him political cover, and he probably wants a decorated war hero to boot.
All the charges about Hagel’s views on Israel or Iran are secondary. The real question is, how will he begin this long cutting process? How will he balance modernizing the military and paying current personnel? How will he recalibrate American defense strategy with, say, 455,000 fewer service members?
How, in short, will Hagel supervise the beginning of America’s military decline? If members of Congress don’t want America to decline militarily, well, they have no one to blame but the voters and themselves.
I don’t agree that Hagel’s views on Iran are “secondary.” Iran is a first-order threat – a radical regime allied with al Qaeda, at war with America and determined to obtain nuclear weapons. If we don’t address that threat now, the costs of addressing it later will be significantly greater.
But I think Brooks is right that Obama wants deep cuts to military spending and wants to use Chuck Hagel to give him political cover. The president has long spoken of the need to reduce defense spending, a position that grows not from his dedication to reducing the size of government but from his reluctance to use American power – both hard and soft. Even as top military leaders – uniformed and civilian – have warned about the potentially “catastrophic” consequences of the sequester cuts, the president has demonstrated little concern.
The Brooks theory on the Hagel pick was validated this morning with the words of a top Obama supporter. Bill Burton, former deputy White House press secretary and the man who ran Obama’s super PAC, explained the Hagel pick to Chuck Todd on The Daily Rundown.
"This is a guy who's a decorated veteran, and when you've got a period of time when you're going to have to make huge cuts to the Pentagon, he's the sort of guy you want on your team doing it."
So the president’s top advisers are touting Hagel as someone who makes “huge cuts to the Pentagon” a near certainty and easier to sell. There’s very little ambiguity about their intentions.
Among the most important political questions of the Hagel nomination, then, is how Republicans and, more important, Democrats from red or purple states will respond to this news.
Virginia Democrat Tim Kaine isn’t up for reelection for six years. But he’s from a state with a huge military population and he now sits on the Armed Service Committee. Will he support a nominee who is being sold as the man to preside over “huge cuts” to the military? And what about Joe Donnelly, a Democrat from Indiana? Like Kaine, he’s not up for six years, but with a seat on the Armed Services Committee and representing a red state like Indiana, a vote for “huge cuts” at the Pentagon won’t be an easy one. Kay Hagan, a Democrat on Armed Services, hails from North Carolina. She’s up in 2014. Does she want to run for reelection defending her vote for “huge cuts” to the Pentagon? Mark Pryor, from Arkansas, isn’t on Armed Services but is up in 2014. How would Arkansas voters feel about “huge cuts” to the Pentagon?
What about Alaska’s Mark Begich? North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp? Virginia’s Mark Warner? Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu? Joe Manchin from West Virginia? And Jon Tester from Montana?
If a vote for Hagel is a vote for him to “supervise the beginning of America’s decline,” as Brooks puts it, how many of these senators will support him?