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The Rational Center | Commentary by John Zaring
| Tuesday, Feb 12, 2013

johnzaring2012At some point this week, the Senate will vote on President Barack Obama’s nominee for Secretary of Defense, former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel from Nebraska.   As defense secretary, Hagel will be in charge of the largest and arguably most important sector of the federal government, which is why the position is supposed to be non-partisan.

But Hagel’s fellow Republicans don’t see it quite that way.

Let’s be honest: Hagel’s performance before the Senate Armed Services Committee was weak.  At times, the attacks from longtime friends such as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who as a presidential candidate once had Hagel on his short list for the same position, left Hagel shocked to the point of incoherence.

Hagel’s bigger problem is what he’s not, which is a neocon, and that has the more hawkish members of the Senate and their supporters on the outside, such as former Vice President Dick Cheney, up in arms (no pun intended).  Hagel is paying the price for being unafraid, during his time in the Senate, to abandon the GOP’s position on matters of war during the Bush years.

On Monday, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, announced he would like to put Hagel’s nomination before the committee for a vote today, but Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., quickly jumped into the fray to say, “Not so fast, Carl.”  Graham said he’s going to put a “hold” on the nomination until he gets some more answers from the administration about the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi.

You read that correctly. Graham wants to hold up a vote on the defense secretary over an issue that involves – yes – the State Department.

That prompted a scathing rebuke from the White House, with Obama’s press secretary Jay Carney saying, “What is unfortunate here is the continuing attempt to politicize an issue, in this case, through nominees that themselves had nothing to do with Benghazi, and to do so in a way that only does harm to our national security interests.”

It appears Hagel will achieve the 60 vote threshold needed to overcome any attempt at filibuster by his former party-mates, so basically Graham knows he can do little more than stall the vote a day or two.

Once Hagel is approved, the real work will begin.  Hagel will be charged with guiding the Pentagon through an already-underway transformation started by current Pentagon head Leon Panetta, taking America from a post-Cold War strategy based on large-scale ground battles to today’s more specialized operations like we’ve seen in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Speaking of the defense budget, let’s address the looming sequester which, if Congress continues to do, well, nothing, will take effect March 1, and in the process wipe out billions from the Pentagon’s budget.

History shows that the sequester was voted into law by the GOP-controlled House and with majority Republican support in the Senate, yet Republicans have been trying hard over the past few weeks to reposition it as, according to Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, “the Obama Sequester.”

Let’s review the facts.

On Aug. 11, 2011, the Budget Control Act, which is the official name for the sequester, passed in the House of Representatives by a vote of 269-161.   A quick check of the Roll Call shows that 174 of those 298 “yes” votes came from House Republicans, a group that included every GOP leader, including Speaker John Boehner, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Congressman (and eventual Mitt Romney running mate) Paul Ryan.  Boehner, in fact, told CBS News on that day, “I got 98 percent of what I wanted.  I’m pretty happy.”

So I am forced to ask: Since only 95 Democrats voted for it and Boehner got 98 percent of what he wanted, WHO owns it?

The Republican attempt to position the sequester as Obama’s doing is interesting in a couple of ways.  For years, they’ve been insisting the president isn’t serious about deficit reduction.  Yet now, they want to position Obama as the architect behind draconian cuts, making him the Angela Merkel of American austerity.  Let’s not forget that since the debt ceiling crisis, which is what the sequester stems from, the GOP has been pushing the idea that the budget needs to be cut.  However, now they want the blame Obama for the cuts they’ve been calling for all along.

As an easily confused Scooby Doo often said, “Hu-ruh?”

Republicans have little leverage at this point.  Even conservative standard bearer Bill Crystal wrote in The Weekly Standard that “allowing the sequester to go into effect would be deeply irresponsible.”

Tonight, when Obama goes before a joint session of a stubbornly dysfunctional Congress to discuss the state of our union, he will beg for bipartisan cooperation, knowing full well he won’t be getting it anytime soon, on pretty much anything.   Late in his first term, Obama figured out that for Republicans, it wasn’t about philosophical differences; it was just nitpicking for the sake of nitpicking, being obstructionist as a theory of governance.  Republicans simply want to stop stuff from happening that they don’t like, so they aren’t looking for compromise, only spoilers.

Throughout his first term, the president was too often the lone adult in the room cognizant of the creed of the nation –  E Pluribus Unum, “Out of many, one” – which is why tomorrow he will once again take his dog-and-pony show on the road.   Obama learned the hard way that Republicans in Congress only want to hurt him and hurt Democrats, regardless of the cost to the nation, so he will work from the outside in, reminding the American people that they reelected him to be the defender of the middle class and the poor’s advocate.

I suspect the president will look past the blank stares in the Capitol tonight and speak directly to those of us watching at home, utilizing the bully pulpit to advance his second-term priorities of job creation, immigration reform, tax reform and yes, gun control.  And I also suspect it will take a sequestration of memory for Americans to buy the spin offered up by McConnell, Graham, Boehner and others that Obama has mutated from a crazy socialist, big-government-loving liberal into a European-style king of austerity hell-bent on turning America into Greece.

Yep, Scooby said it best.

John Zaring describes himself as a reformed Republican turned moderate Democrat who believes democracy works best when its government actually functions because its leaders are working together. He serves on the Castaic Area Town Council’s Land Use Committee, Castaic Middle School’s Site Council, the Hart District’s WiSH Education Foundation, and he is the West Ranch High School representative on the Hart District’s Advisory Council. A self-proclaimed “New Democrat” a la Bill Clinton, he lives in Castaic with his wife of 21 years and their daughters, Fiona, 16, and Kylie, 12. His commentary publishes Tuesdays.

 

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