Schumer Throws Cold Water on Hagel Criticism

Schumer knows there are political consequences for any pivotal Democratic senator who gives the president a severe political blow at the dawn of his second term.

Chuck Hagel and Charles Schumer got together yesterday to determine the fate of the former Nebraska senator nominated by President Obama to be secretary of defense. When it was over, New York’s senator Schumer promptly paved the way for Hagel’s Senate confirmation. After the ninety-minute meeting, the Senate’s third-ranking Democrat (who also is likely to be the chamber’s next Democratic leader), said of Hagel, "I am currently prepared to vote for his confirmation. I encourage my Senate colleagues who have shared my previous concerns to also support him."

And thus did the New York senator dash the hopes of various anti-Hagel activists who had focused on him as a kind of Horatius at the Bridge of Hagel’s Senate confirmation.

Just that very morning, as TNI’s Jacob Heilbrunn noted yesterday, The New York Times ran a full-page ad sponsored by the Emergency Committee for Israel (ECI) decrying the purportedly dangerous views of Hagel and urging Times readers to call Schumer’s office to pressure the guy into opposing Hagel. It even helpfully provided the senator’s office phone number. For good measure, it also urged phone calls to Schumer’s New York colleague, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, also a Democrat.

But Schumer resisted that effort. Why? Because the regular business of the Senate, at least for him, is far more important than narrow, emotional issues that spawn ill-founded and outrageous allegations about what’s inside the head of a patriotic American who has served his country in war and peace. Because there are political consequences for any pivotally positioned Democratic senator who delivers to his Democratic president a severe political blow at the dawn of his second term. Because the anti-Hagel offensive just isn’t important enough to justify that kind of intraparty strife.

As this political drama unfolds, the ECI’s New York Times ad will be seen as the high-water mark for those who sought to bring down Hagel through vituperation and emotion-laden attacks. In the ad, former New York City mayor Ed Koch declared that Hagel’s emergence at Defense "will encourage the jihadists." Representative Eliot Engel of New York ominously confessed to seeing "some kind of endemic hostility toward Israel" on Hagel’s part. His colleague, Shelley Berkley of Nevada, decried Hagel’s tendency to "support…the interests of terrorist groups over the interests of Israel."

As Heilbrunn appropriately noted, "This is weird stuff."

It is well known that the ECI was spearheaded by Weekly Standard editor William Kristol, who issued an early broadside against Hagel when his name was floated as a possible nominee for Defense. He later continued the attack with a particularly harsh and at times snide bit of pugilism in the current issue of the magazine.

But where does the money come from for full-page ads in The New York Times and 30-second commercials on national television? Not clear from the group’s website, which says its board of directors consists of Kristol, Christian conservative Gary Bauer and polemicist Rachel Abrams, whose blog is called "Bad Rachel" and whose venomous attacks on Palestinians have been widely disseminated.

An example of the group’s work was dissected recently by PolitiFact, the journalistic fact-checking service of The Tampa Bay Times. In one television ad, the group declared: "And while President Obama says all options are on the table for preventing a nuclear Iran, Hagel says military action is not a viable, feasible, responsible option." It is true, says PolitiFact, that Obama has placed all options on the table, but so did Hagel in a 2012 Washington Post op-ed article. The fact-checkers noted that Hagel’s concern about military action against Iran was expressed not in 2012 but in 2006, when the United States was engaged in two separate wars of serious difficulty in Iraq and Afghanistan. By implying that Hagel’s expressed concern was recent and represented a position in opposition to Obama’s, ECI had proved itself sloppy with the facts. PolitiFact called the ad "Mostly False."

No doubt these were the kinds of things that came up during that chat yesterday between Senator Schumer and Chuck Hagel. And it isn’t likely that Schumer was bamboozled into supporting his erstwhile colleague.

Writing before Schumer’s announcement, the Post’s Jennifer Rubin, a full-throated anti-Hagel partisan, speculated that Hagel could still lose even if Schumer supports him—"either because of a GOP filibuster or near-unanimous disapproval from Republicans and a few breakaway Democrats up for reelection in 2014"—but there is "no way" Hagel’s nomination could survive Schumer’s opposition, "given Schumer’s prominence on Israel issues and the pressure his decision would generate" on other pro-Israel Democratic senators.

She then speculates that Schumer’s support for Hagel would put him at risk of ceding leadership on Israel and the entire Middle East to rival senators. She explains,