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Former U.S. Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., speaks at the White House on Monday after President Obama nominated him to replace Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
Former U.S. Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., speaks at the White House on Monday after President Obama nominated him to replace Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Weeks before President Obama officially nominated Chuck Hagel to be secretary of defense, the lobbying battle was well under way. The fight might be bigger than any other Cabinet nomination in history as the former Republican senator's friends and foes prepare for modern combat on TV and the Internet.
As important as confirming a defense secretary might be, this Senate vote will come wrapped in all sorts of other issues, too. A win is critically important for President Obama; in December, a conservative campaign demolished the chances of his apparent choice for secretary of state, Susan Rice.
"It may be stormy, it may be a difficult fight, but the president has to win on this one," says Aaron David Miller of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. "On the other side, I think the criticism is heightened by several factors."
For one thing, Republicans want to forge a more openly assertive foreign policy than the Obama administration has employed. Another thing is that many pro-Israel groups don't trust the president's instincts on Israel, which led to an anti-Hagel campaign, which led to ads funded by conservative groups.
Michael Goldfarb, an adviser to the Emergency Committee for Israel, a group organized by conservative leader William Kristol, says it's not worried about financing more messages.
"You know, honestly, I expect people are going to be coming to us, looking to support our activities on this front," Goldfarb says. "But right now I think we have enough money in the bank to get started."
A more surprising attack came from a small, national gay organization — the Log Cabin Republicans, which ran two full-page ads in The New York Times and The Washington Post. The group attacked Hagel, not only on gay rights — which he opposed as a senator 15 years ago — but also over things he has said about U.S. policy toward Israel and Iran.
Gregory Angelo, the group's interim director, says it's not unreasonable for the Log Cabin Republicans to branch out from its core issues.
"The fact is there are some Log Cabin Republicans who put equality issues first and foremost, and there are some who put other issues first," Angelo says — issues such as small government, low taxes and a strong national defense.
"Log Cabin Republicans have forever been these two types of gay Republicans that are co-existing," he says.
Angelo declined to discuss how the group raised money for the ads.
Support For Hagel
There's a similar effort mobilizing to support Hagel, but it's lagging several steps behind.
A group of establishment foreign policy leaders called the Bipartisan Group put a pro-Hagel ad in the Times and also ran small messages in a daily email published by Politico. The funding came from longtime liberal donor Bill Benter of Pittsburgh.
Again, the topic was the Middle East. The Bipartisan Group said no one has been more steadfast than Hagel in supporting the U.S. commitment to Israel.
Brent Scowcroft, a national security adviser to two Republican presidents, was among the 11 signatories to the letter.
"I will say what I think about Chuck Hagel to anyone that asks," says Scowcroft, who has known Hagel for years. "But I don't consider myself part of a campaign."
While some of this is starting to resemble a political campaign, there is a critical difference. The electorate here is tiny: the U.S. Senate. And for the senators, it's just not a political equation.
Miller of the Wilson Center says that gives Obama an edge.
"Unless his critics — and here we're talking about Republicans in the Senate — have a compelling case to deny a sitting, re-elected, second-term president his choice for secretary of defense, then Chuck Hagel will be confirmed," Miller says.
Before that vote comes, however, the money is going to flow to political consultants and TV stations.