Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

GOP, don't fight the Hagel nomination

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
January 8, 2013 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • President Barack Obama is nominating Chuck Hagel for defense secretary
  • Julian Zelizer: Republicans should avoid challenging Hagel's confirmation
  • By opposing Hagel, GOP would strengthen Obama's edge on national security
  • Zelizer: GOP would look foolish challenging one of its own and opposing bipartisanship

Editor's note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and of "Governing America."

(CNN) -- Some Republicans are itching for a fight on President Barack Obama's nomination of former Sen. Chuck Hagel to be defense secretary.

Sen. Lindsey Graham warned that Hagel would be the most "antagonistic secretary of defense toward the state of Israel." Neoconservative guru William Kristol is already cranking up the attack machine, focusing on Hagel's statements about Israel and Iran. Although some Democrats are confused about the Hagel appointment, with some upset about remarks he made several years ago about homosexuality, if there is to be a fight it will probably come from the right.

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

Republicans would do well to avoid this path. In all likelihood, such a nomination fight would only hurt the Republicans, who are already reeling politically from the election and the battle over the fiscal cliff.

A view of what's really behind Hagel nomination fight

Why is a fight over Hagel a bad idea for Republicans? The most obvious is that they would be attacking a member of their own party. Even though Hagel has been a maverick and someone who was critical of his party, pushing in recent years for a centrist approach to foreign policy, he is a genuine Republican, as his voting record reveals.

A mobilized GOP opposition fighting against the inclusion of one of its own in a Democratic administration would only fuel frustration with the rightward drift of the party. After a move that demonstrates Obama's true interest in bipartisanship, this would bolster the critics who say the GOP is to blame for gridlock in Washington.

Hagel is also a staunch advocate for veterans and the military. Republicans have always tried to make the claim that Democrats are weak on defense and that they are the party of national security.

Mack: Hagel 'will get nomination in end'
Graham: Hagel a controversial choice
Hagel likely defense secretary pick

Although Hagel has been a skeptical hawk, he is a Republican hawk nonetheless. One does not have to work too hard to imagine what the optics would be like if Republicans go after Hagel, who would be the first Vietnam veteran to hold the position.

It would give Obama the opportunity to position himself as the person really standing behind a robust national security state. Since taking office, Obama has repeatedly tripped up Republicans on this issue, outflanking them to the right on the war on terrorism. This would simply continue that trend.

Read more: Who's in, who's out of cabinet

The final reason that taking on Hagel is extraordinarily risky for the GOP is that Hagel's most famous maverick move was coming out as a critic of President George W. Bush's war in Iraq despite the fact that he had supported the original resolution to use force if necessary.

Given how unpopular that war remains, a symbol for many Americans of the mistakes that Republicans made on foreign policy when in power, the last thing that Republicans probably want is a renewed debate on Iraq.

By bringing that war to an end, Obama has provided one of the greatest services to the GOP that it could have hoped for, allowing it to move on to other national security issues.

Even some of Hagel's potential liabilities might turn out to be much less significant than expected. After all, despite his comments about Israel, the truth is that Hagel voted to provide Israel with aid and he has voted for sanctions with Iran. The record is much murkier than some of the statements on the Sunday morning talk shows would suggest.

Republicans have often shot from the hip in their attacks on the Obama administration. It is easy to imagine the president and his advisers anticipating attacks on Hagel that will only work to their favor.

Senate Republicans might want to think twice about this vote on a former colleague and focus their attention on more constructive debates.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1419 GMT (2219 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1859 GMT (0259 HKT)
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
September 27, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1332 GMT (2132 HKT)
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1233 GMT (2033 HKT)
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 2137 GMT (0537 HKT)
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1658 GMT (0058 HKT)
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 0910 GMT (1710 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
September 25, 2014 -- Updated 1900 GMT (0300 HKT)
John Sutter says the right is often stereotyped on climate change. But with 97% of climate scientists say humans are causing global warming, we all have to get together on this.
September 25, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
Andrew Liepman and Philip Mudd: When we declare that we will defeat ISIS, what do we exactly mean?
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 2040 GMT (0440 HKT)
Thailand sex trafficking
Human trafficking is a multibillion dollar global industry. To beat it, we need to change mindsets, Cindy McCain says.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
The leaders of the GOP conferences say a Republican-led Senate could help solve America's problems.
September 25, 2014 -- Updated 1401 GMT (2201 HKT)
Nicholas Syrett says Wesleyan University's decision to make fraternities admit women will help curb rape culture.
September 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Mike Downey says New Yorkers may be overdoing it, but baseball will really miss Derek Jeter
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1232 GMT (2032 HKT)
Quick: Which U.S. president has authorized wars of various kinds in seven Muslim countries?
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 1817 GMT (0217 HKT)
Women's issues should be considered front and center when assessing a society's path, says Zainab Salbi
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 1805 GMT (0205 HKT)
A catastrophe not making headlines like Ebola and ISIS: the astounding rate of child poverty in the world's richest country.
ADVERTISEMENT