Were we looking at Barack Obama’s running mate, perhaps the next vice president of the United States on Wednesday afternoon?
You couldn’t help but wonder, as Sen. Chuck Hagel, R- Neb., showed up at the Washington think tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), to discuss his new book, "America: Our Next Chapter," before an audience of Washington insiders, business executives, and diplomats.
In the inside-the-Beltway scuttlebutt about Obama’s running mate, Hagel’s name comes up as do the names of such Democrats as Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia and Gov. Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas, and a few non-politicians, such as retired Marine Corps Gen. James Jones, a former NATO commander.
The speculation about Jones seemed ill-founded Wednesday after the general appeared with Sen. John McCain at a campaign event in Missouri.
Some Democrats think Obama would be smart to pick Hagel.
One veteran Senate Democratic staffer, speaking on condition he not be identified by name, called Hagel “the strongest pick Obama could make, particularly if he is serious about his ‘there are no red states, there are no blue states’ rhetoric. After eight years of division, it would be the most immediately healing gesture that Obama could make, as well as a gutsy, brilliant political move, too.”
One must go back to the Civil War to find a presidential candidate crossing party lines for his running mate. Republican Abraham Lincoln, an Illinoisan like Obama, chose Democrat Andrew Johnson to run with him in 1864.
Hagel still neutral in presidential race
Hagel seems to be in no hurry to say which presidential candidate he’ll support, Obama or McCain, for whom he campaigned in 2000 when McCain vied with George W. Bush for the Republican nomination.
“John is an old friend, and we talk often,” Hagel said in an interview Wednesday after his CSIS speech.
But he also said, “I may not endorse anyone."
Would he accept if Obama asked him to be his running mate?
“If one of those men asked me to consider it, I’d have to consider it, of course,” he said.
He added: “This country is in some trouble” and therefore “bringing the country together is going to be the biggest part of the next president’s responsibilities” — a compelling argument, it would seem, for a bipartisan ticket.
And Hagel might bring some distinct strengths to the Democratic ticket.
He’d put Nebraska’s five electoral votes in play, something that hasn’t been the case since 1964.
As a senior Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, he has travelled widely abroad and is fluent in discussing Pakistan, nuclear non-proliferation and other topics.
An Army combat veteran of the Vietnam War, Hagel has been the harshest critic in the Republican Party of President Bush’s Iraq policy.
He voted for the 2002 Iraq war resolution, but he greeted Bush’s announcement of the troop surge last year with disdain.
It was, he said, “dangerously wrongheaded” and would lead to more American casualties and more billions of dollars spent.
Calls Bush 'confused' on Iran
Last month Hagel assailed Bush when the president delivered a speech to the Israeli Knesset in which he criticized those who “believe that we should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along.”
Democrats took that remark as an attack on Obama.
“I don’t know if the president was confused and if he was referencing Iran, or if he was referencing terrorists,” Hagel said last month.
He added, “I agree with Sen. Obama and many of us who have talked about engaging Iran.”
Bush, he said, “diminishes the office (of president) when he allows himself to sink down into the underbrush of petty politics.”
And Hagel seems disgusted by politics, petty or otherwise, as it's now practiced in Washington.
In his CSIS speech, he complained about candidates, whom he did not name, “pandering” to voters in manufacturing states such as Ohio, falsely promising that “if you elect me, I’ll get your jobs back.”
He derided political consultants as “assassins” and grumbled that politicians have “debased the debate” on international trade.
Musing about impeachment
Last year, Hagel caused a flutter of excitement by musing that Bush could be impeached. “And before this is over, you might see calls for his impeachment,” he told Esquire magazine.
But despite the admiration Democrats have for Hagel because of his harsh words about Bush, Democratic consultant Chris Kofinis makes the case that this isn’t the year for the Democrats to put a Republican on the ticket.
“A bipartisan ticket may sound intriguing on paper, but it’s not realistic,” Kofinis said Wednesday.
“With Democratic winds blowing in our favor, coupled with a rich number of Democrats who would make a great vice president for Sen. Obama, the chances of any Republican, even Chuck Hagel, being selected as Obama's VP are, in my opinion, slim and none.”
There is, after all, the matter of Hagel’s voting record.
In a year in which some people are talking about “bridging the partisan divide,” can a voting record still matter? If so, there is much in Hagel’s history to give pause to Democratic constituencies.
Take one hot issue right now: oil drilling.
Hagel voted in 2002 and 2005 to permit oil drilling in a portion of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a position anathema to most Democrats.
And Hagel said Wednesday that he fully supports McCain’s call this week for ending the moratorium on offshore oil drilling.
“That’s been my position all along,” Hagel said.
He added for good measure that the ANWR drilling issue has been “intentionally misrepresented” by oil drilling foes.
Then there’s Hagel’s stand on another controversy high on the nation’s agenda now: same-sex marriage.
In 2004, on a procedural vote, Hagel voted to go forward toward Senate approval of a constitutional amendment that would have banned marriage between same-sex couples.
Even McCain voted against it, as did all Democratic senators, except three: Hagel’s fellow Nebraskan Ben Nelson, West Virginia’s Robert Byrd and Georgia’s Zell Miller, who ended up denouncing his own party in 2004 and endorsing Bush.
A conservative voting record
If Obama were to select Hagel, Democratic activists would have to accommodate themselves to a man with a conservative past.
When he sought his Senate seat in 1996, Hagel ran on a right-of-center Newt Gingrich platform. He wanted to eliminate the tax on capital gains and the estate tax, moves which would have benefited rich taxpayers.
He called for abolishing the Departments of Education, Energy, Commerce, and Housing and Urban Development. He wanted a 25 percent cut in the budget of every federal regulatory agency.
In 2005-2006, the leading antiabortion group, the National Right to Life Committee, awarded Hagel a perfect 100 percent rating for his voting record. Among the votes cited: his vote against federal funding of embryonic stem cell research.
Obama’s rating from the National Right to Life Committee since he became a senator in 2005 has been zero.
Clash over Supreme Court
Hagel and Obama are also at odds on Supreme Court nominees. Hagel voted for — and Obama against — both of Bush’s nominees, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito.
“I enthusiastically endorse and support Judge Alito's nomination,” he said on the Senate floor on Jan. 26, 2006. “The President has chosen wisely, and I encourage my Senate colleagues to join me in voting for this exceptional nominee.”
That same day, a few hours later, Obama stood up on the floor to denounce Alito.
“In almost every case he consistently sides on behalf of the powerful against the powerless,” he charged.
Such Obama-Hagel conflicts would be hard to ignore, and as we’ve seen with Republicans’ recycling of Hillary Clinton’s arguments against Obama, they would not be forgotten.