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
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1424 GMT (2224 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2152 GMT (0552 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2121 GMT (0521 HKT)
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1354 GMT (2154 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the Ferguson protests reflect broader patterns of racial injustice across the country, from chronic police violence and abuse against black men to the persistent economic and social exclusion of communities of color.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1310 GMT (2110 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1359 GMT (2159 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
August 16, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
August 17, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 2146 GMT (0546 HKT)
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2226 GMT (0626 HKT)
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2024 GMT (0424 HKT)
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1056 GMT (1856 HKT)
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2035 GMT (0435 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2308 GMT (0708 HKT)
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1525 GMT (2325 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT