Advise and Consent

Of you look in the Constitution, in Article II, down in Section 2, in Clause 2, it says that the President of the United States “shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consults, Judges of the Supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States.” The president gets to pick his team, to carry out his policies, but the Senate is there to stop him from doing anything too stupid. That’s fairly straightforward, but in the matter of Supreme Court Justices, who serve for life, it can get a little tricky. Early in the process a committee of the American Bar Association, as a courtesy, provides an assessment that the nominee seems to be qualified for the position – he or she seems to know the law quite well, from experience in the law. This means little. Presidents don’t nominate truck drivers or rock stars. The fight begins when it soon becomes apparent that there are other qualifications to be considered – whether the nominee will pledge, if appointed, to overturn Roe and make abortion legal again, no matter what the facts of the case before them. Will they pledge to rule in favor of businesses against consumers and labor unions and uppity women and minorities, no matter what the facts of the case before them? Will they pledge to rule that America is a Christian country and all others are here only as a courtesy?

The list could go on and on, but each nominee, in his or her Senate confirmation hearings, knows enough to say they’d never make such pledges. They say they’d be impartial and see what the Constitution says, or at least implies, about the matter at hand, and then rule appropriately – and no one believes that for a moment. Everyone is speaking in code, talking about the nominee’s “judicial temperament” or whatever. That’s another way of talking about what you know they’ll do if confirmed. No one was surprised when the Roberts court ruled, in Citizens United, that corporations have free-speech rights, just like people, and thus corporations can spend as much as they want, at any time, to get their allies elected to public office, and do so anonymously as just like people, as corporations also have an expectation of privacy. What else would you expect? Everyone knew the judicial temperament of Roberts and the four other conservatives on the bench at the time. What no one expected was that John Roberts would be the swing vote in the ruling that declared the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare, quite constitutional – and that he would write the majority opinion too. Republicans were aghast. Roberts, in his confirmation hearings, hadn’t been speaking in code after all. Who knew?

This is a tricky business where nothing is what it seems, so traditionally the Senate sometimes puts up a little fuss but concedes that the president has the right to choose the judges he likes, and the key members of the team that carries out his policies, even if they’re not their policies – as long as the nominees aren’t total jerks, or criminally insane, or flat-out unqualified. The president was elected to run things. Let him. Few nominees get blocked – only Robert Bork for the Supreme Court and John Bolton as UN Ambassador and maybe a circuit judge or two. The usual thing is that a name is floated and, if there’s trouble, that person is never nominated at all – as with Susan Rice. George Bush had the same problem with Harriet Miers. It’s an odd little dance, where the Senate sullenly bows to the president, and the president makes no sudden moves.

There’s a long-forgotten novel about this – Allen Drury’s Advise and Consent – all about a controversial secretary of state nominee who might have been a former member of the Communist Party, and who also ends up lying under oath about a brief homosexual encounter in his past. This novel won the 1960 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction but it really is a relic of the Red Scare days of the fifties – Drury was a big fan of Joe McCarthy and this may have been the last of that.

It’s a real potboiler. Otto Preminger directed a film version of the novel a few years later, with Henry Fonda as the conflicted nominee and Franchot Tone as the president who nominates him as his second term begins, trying to shift his foreign policy from belligerence to engagement. Walter Pidgeon is senate majority leader – the Mitch McConnell part – and Charles Laughton and Betty White are senators. It’s a hoot, but it’s also Allen Drury’s wet dream. The nomination goes down in flames, just as the president dies too, as he should. Any president certainly can chose key members of the team that carries out his policies, but some policies are so very wrong that they must be nipped in the bud. There’s a communist under every bed, you know. There’s also never a time to shift from belligerence to engagement.

All that may seem quaint now, but here we are, this January, stuck in that schlock novel again:

Several Republican senators voiced their concerns on Sunday about President Obama’s expected nomination of former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel for defense secretary over past statements the former Nebraska lawmaker made about Israel and gay rights–hinting Hagel’s confirmation would not come without a fight.

Hagel’s nomination is expected to be announced by the White House on Monday, according to Politico and all sorts of other sources, so these guys were getting a jump on things:

On CNN’s “State of the Union,” South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham called Hagel an “in your face” choice by the president.

“Chuck Hagel, if confirmed to be the secretary of defense, would be the most antagonistic secretary of defense toward the state of Israel in our nation’s history,” Graham said. “Not only has he said you should directly negotiate with Iran, sanctions won’t work, that Israel should directly negotiate with the Hamas organization, a terrorist group that lobs thousands of rockets into Israel. He also was one of 12 senators who refused to sign a letter to the European Union that Hezbollah should be designated as a terrorist organization.

“This is an in-your-face nomination by the president,” Graham continued. “And it looks like the second term of Barack Obama is going to be an in-your-face term.”

In short, there’s never a time to shift from belligerence to engagement. Direct negotiations are always stupid and so on. Charles Laughton played the good-old-boy senator from South Carolina with more flair, but that was Hollywood.

Lindsey Graham wasn’t alone of course:

On “Fox News Sunday,” Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said the reported choice of Hagel proves Obama was emboldened by his victory in November. “This is a president who has drunk the tea,” Cruz said. “He’s high on reelection right now.”

On ABC’s “This Week,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said he’d “wait and see how the hearings go,” and see “whether Chuck’s views square with the job he would be nominated to do.”

“Whoever’s nominated for secretary of defense is going to have to have a full understanding of our close relationship with our Israeli allies, the Iranian threat and the importance of having a robust military,” McConnell said. “So whoever that is, I think, will be given a thorough vetting. And if Senator Hagel’s nominated, he’ll be subjected to the same kinds of review of his credentials as anyone else.

McConnell added: “He’s certainly been outspoken in foreign policy and defense over the years. The question we will be answering, if he’s the nominee, is ‘Do his views make sense for that particular job?'”

Do they get to question his views? The president sets policy. They don’t. Mitt Romney, who said he’d never apologize for America, and certainly never even talk to the bad guys much less negotiate with them, did not wrest the presidency from Obama. Do the Republicans in the Senate, still with their forty minority votes that can stop anything and everything the majority wants cold, get to set foreign policy too? They seem to think so. It’s just like the novel, except Obama doesn’t die, as he should.

Slate’s Fred Kaplan has been thinking about this:

The real question is what kind of job Obama wants his next secretary of defense to do. I have no inside knowledge on this, but judging from some of his actions and remarks on matters of national defense, Hagel seems to be the right choice. And that’s what disturbs the most outspoken Hagel-resisters.

By that he means this:

These resisters have four main concerns. They fear that Hagel will cut the military budget. They fear that he’ll roll over if Iran builds a nuclear weapon. They fear that he’s too reluctant to use military force generally. And they fear he doesn’t much like Israel; the extremists on this point claim he’s anti-Semitic.

Kaplan considers all this to be nonsense:

It is true that Hagel once said the defense budget was “bloated” with unnecessary items. Does anyone doubt this is true? Even if sequestration is avoided, the military services are coming in for some cuts, maybe some drastic ones. That always happens after a war, and with good reason; the money spent on those wars is no longer needed. The baseline military budget (excluding the costs of the wars) amounts to $525 billion. Adjusting for inflation, that’s only 7 percent less than what Ronald Reagan spent on defense at the peak of the Cold War – a time when massive Soviet tank armies were poised on the East-West German border and a nuclear arms race was spiraling out of control. It’s hard to argue that we need more money for defense than we spent back then. We still face threats, but not the kinds of threats requiring massive sums on fighter aircraft, tanks, submarines, and nukes.

And then there’s this nominee’s reluctance to commit to bombing the crap out of Iran:

Two things here: First, the same is true of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and most of the American people; second, ultimately, the point is irrelevant. The president makes these sorts of decisions. Obama has said that he will not allow Iran to get a nuclear weapon. Some Republicans say that they don’t believe him and that by picking Hagel – who would have a loud say in deliberations on the issue- the president is confirming their worst suspicions. First, they have no evidence for this claim. Second, maybe they’re right; but either way, does the Senate’s role of “advise and consent” include an insistence that the secretary of defense favor a policy that they believe the president opposes?

That was the problem with the Drury novel too:

Are they sure that Michele Flournoy – the former undersecretary of defense who had also been under consideration for the top job (and who was touted as the superior candidate by such neo-cons as Paul Wolfowitz) – would take a harder line on the subject? And are they really sure what Hagel’s position is? For the past year, he has been co-chairman of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, where he has won plaudits from several veteran intelligence officials for his probity and objectivity. One of these officials told me that, during discussions of intelligence on Iran’s nuclear program, Hagel put no political spin on the issue.

There’s only one thing to conclude:

The Republicans’ real problem on Iran is with Obama – or, rather, with what they think Obama stands for. In the wake of his incontestable reelection, Hagel serves as a stand-in.

Yeah but they lost, and Obama has always represented a shift from shift from belligerence to engagement, which drives these guys crazy:

On the issue of military force, Hagel is more dovish than many Republicans and perhaps some Democrats. He opposed the Iraq war, but so did Obama (then an Illinois state senator), and, as is clearer now than ever, they were right. More disturbing to some conservatives, he opposed President Bush’s 2007 troop surge in Iraq. The surge and its accompanying shift in strategy did help significantly tamp down the violence in Iraq and allowed, five years later, for a dignified U.S. exit. In that sense, it “worked.” But it only bought time for the Iraqi political factions to settle their differences. (That’s all that Gen. David Petraeus, the strategy’s architect, ever claimed it could do.) And now it’s clear that the factions didn’t want to settle their differences, and so ethnic clashes have persisted, and the issues that divide the factions are no closer to settlement. Therefore, was Hagel so wrong? And, for what it’s worth, Obama, now-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and the entire Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time opposed the surge, too. Are Hagel’s critics denouncing any of them? Again, they’re really going after Obama.

And of course to shore up their base of evangelicals out to defend Israel at all costs, because it’s really Jesus Land, there’s this:

As a senator, Hagel once complained to a reporter that “the Jewish lobby” intimidates many lawmakers on Capitol Hill. And he once intoned that he was a senator from Nebraska, not a senator from Israel. These may have been impolitic remarks, but they weren’t false- either in strict substance or in spirit.

It seems that anyone who doesn’t put the interests of Israel, or at least the Likud Party, over the interests of America, isn’t an American patriot, or something:

No one could deny that AIPAC has an overpowering influence on many lawmakers. Hagel’s sin, in the eyes of some, was to call it the “Jewish lobby” instead of the “Israel lobby.” If this is a sin, AIPAC and its allies have brought it on themselves. For decades, they have thundered that criticism of Israel is thinly disguised anti-Semitism. Yet they cry “anti-Semitism” again when someone inverts the equation (which is what the phrase in question amounts to: If anti-Israel equals anti-Jewish, then pro-Israel equals pro-Jewish). As for saying that he’s a senator from Nebraska, not Israel: Had he or any other senator said this about any other country (“I’m not a senator from France … England … Canada” or wherever), no one would have batted an eye. To accuse him of anti-Semitism on these grounds is to reveal a staggeringly deep paranoia – or sensitivity far too acute to be allowed any role in American politics.

Kaplan also cites this open letter from nine former US ambassadors, five of them former ambassadors to Israel, absolutely endorsing Hagel for secretary of defense and saying the charge that he’s anti-Semitic is ludicrous, and Kaplan also recommends Jeffrey Goldberg:

The Jewish Home party advances an ideology that will bring about the destruction (the self-destruction) of Israel. The Jewish Home party seeks to erase the dividing line between Israel and the West Bank; it seeks to build more and more settlements; it seeks to absorb the West Bank’s Arabs into Israel as, at the most, second-class citizens. It seeks to empower Orthodox religious nationalism as the dominant ideology of the state… And its policies would turn Israel into a pariah state, and Israel will not survive for the long-term as a pariah state.

How does this relate to Hagel? This is how: Maybe, at this point, what we need are American officials who will speak with disconcerting bluntness to Israel about the choices it is making. If the Jewish Home party becomes a key part of Netanyahu’s right-wing ruling coalition, you can be assured that there will not compromise coming in the foreseeable future (it’s almost impossible to foresee compromise now.) Maybe the time has come to redefine the term “pro-Israel” to include, in addition to providing support against Iran (a noble cause); help with the Iron Dome system (also a noble cause); and support to maintain Israel’s qualitative military edge (ditto), the straightest of straight talk about Israel’s self-destructive policies on the West Bank. Maybe Hagel, who is not bound to old models, could be useful in this regard.

Yep, and Kaplan also cites the recently retired Israeli defense minister saying that Obama has done more for Israeli security than any American president in recent memory, for what that’s worth, so Kaplan sees only one thing here:

Let’s look at the real issues. Hagel is a former two-term Republican senator. He won two Purple Hearts as an infantry squad leader in Vietnam. No one could possibly dispute his devotion to the country, its security, or its armed forces. But he is a pragmatist, and there may be the rub…

If that is true, the real problem is with the present-day Republican Party. It’s often said that today’s GOP wouldn’t nominate Ronald Reagan for president. By the same token, much of its leadership would rail against Robert Gates for secretary of defense.

Yep, Robert Gates is a Republican too, and John Cole at Balloon Juice adds this:

Maybe Lindsey Graham isn’t clear that we aren’t nominating Chuck Hagel to be Israel’s Secretary of Defense, but our own. That’s how messed up this situation has become with us as Israel’s client state. Senators can make completely asinine statements like the one above, and no one even flinches. Then, if you point out the overwhelming influence of the Israel lobby in the United States congress, you get tarred and feathered as an anti-Semite. And then they’ll deny there is an Israel lobby.

So I want to have this fight. Let’s let Graham and all the others go in front of a camera and proclaim to the world that their top consideration for the American Secretary of Defense is… his deference to foreign nation. Bring it on, Lindsey.

A Democratic aide said this to Politico:

Chuck Hagel is a decorated war hero who would be the first enlisted soldier and Vietnam veteran to go on to serve as secretary of defense. He had the courage to break with his party during the Iraq War, and would help bring the war in Afghanistan to an end while building the military we need for the future.

He has been a champion for troops, veterans and military families through his service at the VA and USO, and his leadership on behalf of the post-9/11 GI Bill. The president knows him well, has traveled with him to Iraq and Afghanistan, trusts him and believes he represents the proud tradition of a strong, bipartisan foreign policy in the United States.

It’s hard to see the problem here, which is what Obama is counting on:

The White House is calculating that opposition to Mr. Hagel may be loud but not broad and that in end the Senate will confirm him. Administration officials argued that voting against a Republican war hero to run the Defense Department would not be easy for fellow Republicans, and they are confident that disgruntled Democrats will ultimately not deny their president his choice.

“At the end of the day, Republicans will support a decorated war hero who was their colleague for twelve years and has critical experience on veterans’ issues,” said an administration official who requested anonymity to discuss a nomination before it was announced. “It would be hard to explain a no vote just because he bucked his party on Iraq – a war most Americans think was a disaster.”

Maybe so, but there’s still that old Allen Drury novel rattling around in Republican minds, even if it isn’t the Red Scare these days. Muslims will do, and there’s never a time to shift from belligerence to engagement, and some policies are so very wrong that they must be nipped in the bud. The novel was from the late fifties too, where the Republican Id resides, keeping company with Ozzie and Harriet.

But there’s a reason that novel, and the film, disappeared. Betty White as a young senator from Kansas? Really? And anyway, when a president wins a second term, handily, the folks who lost don’t get to tell him what his policies should be. Offer advice, but consent. Let it be.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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