During his confirmation hearing Thursday, President Obama's nominee for secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel, faced a tough line of questioning from his former Republican colleagues. The politically charged hearing bordered at times on comedy, but there was a fair amount of tragedy as well. Hagel stumbled several times and frequently sounded unsure of his answers, while the ferocity with which some Senators attacked him sounded better suited to a lovers' quarrel than a Capitol Hill confirmation.
Little praise has been spoken for anyone involved in Thursday's Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, which lasted nearly the entire day. Conservative members came prepared to attack, while it seems Hagel may not have prepared at all. Having weathered a firestorm of controversy since his nomination, Hagel's discomfort baffled his colleagues, but in many ways, his stumbling may have also worked to his advantage.
In a much-quoted exchange, Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) repeatedly questioned Hagel on his opposition to the surge in Iraq.
"The question is, were you right or were you wrong?" McCain demanded, refusing to accept Hagel's defense that the issue was more complicated than a simple yes or no answer. Keeping a cool head, Hagel responded that he would "defer to the judgment of history to sort that out."
The calm retort amplified McCain's frustration. The former SASC ranking member fired back, "history has already made a judgment about the surge, sir, and you are on the wrong side of it."
Even Hagel's stated supporters, for their part, did little to change the tone of the hearing, preferring to emphasize Hagel's service in Vietnam rather than align themselves with his sometimes-controversial policies.
However, despite some small missteps, his overall unpreparedness, and a lack of vocal external support, Hagel ultimately accomplished what he set out to do. Going in at a disadvantage, with months of criticism leading up to the hearing, it was unlikely the former Senator from Nebraska would come out on top. Many of the objections to his nomination run far deeper than simple policy rationale. Rather, Hagel's job on Thursday was merely to avoid being baited into a major gaffe or outburst, and demonstrate his ability to keep his cool under pressure. He may not have had all the answers, but on this critical point, he performed his minimum task.
While supporters may lament that Hagel would have done well to stand up and defend some of his positions, which are not quite so far from the mainstream as some Senate Republicans might lead one to believe, that kind of combativeness could have been risky. Whether Hagel was playing a game of rope-a-dope to simply survive the hearing, or he genuinely was unprepared, one fact ultimately remains: Barring a filibuster, Hagel will be the next secretary of defense.