Defense & National Security

Is GOP too tough on Obama nominations?

Is GOP too tough on Obama nominations?

With secretary of Defense nominee Chuck Hagel bound for a rocky journey to confirmation, much has been made of the rarity of serious opposition to a presidential cabinet nomination.

In the last six decades, only two nominees for cabinet slots have failed in a full Senate vote: Lewis Strauss, President Dwight Eisenhower’s nominee for Commerce secretary in 1959; and another former senator-turned-defense secretary nominee, John Tower, who was rejected by the Senate at the start of the George H.W. Bush administration in 1989.

Less uncommon is opposition prior to a confirmation vote that impels a candidate to withdraw; though Susan Rice took her name out of consideration for secretary of state before she received a nomination, she is in the company of Bernard Kerik, President George W. Bush’s director of Homeland Security nominee who withdrew under pressure in 2004, and Tom Daschle, who withdrew in 2009 after being nominated by President Barack Obama for director of Health and Human Services, just to name two recent examples.

Some suggest that Republican oppositionalism and a tendency to filibuster are behind the back-to-back challenges to the Hagel and Rice nominations, a view that little accounts for the many Obama nominees—like former Democratic Rep. Leon Panetta, the current Defense secretary—who moved through the confirmation process with unanimous support.

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At the New Republic, writer Stephen L. Carter calls the “innuendo and vilification” within this confirmation process a “cruel and tragic development,” though he admits that such opposition is well within the bounds of the founders’ intentions.

For the National Review, Jonah Goldberg sees it differently, saying Republicans in Washington largely agree “Obama is making this nomination at least in part out of spite.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told CNN’s Meet the Press Jan. 6 that Hagel was an “in-your-face” choice for Republicans because of his public break with those in his own party, his “antagonistic” views toward Israel, and his off-the-reservation endorsement of negotiations with Iran. The pick, Graham said, signaled the start of an “in-your-face” presidential term for Obama.

But the idea that Republicans are being harder on an Obama nominee than former opposition parties have in the past?

“Bull,” said political operative Frederick D. McClure.

Pragmatic roots

McClure, now senior counsel for the SNR Denton law firm in Washington, D.C., served as a legislative aide for President George H.W. Bush and worked to oversee the ultimately unsuccessful Tower nomination. The nomination process for the former four-term senator raised public questions about his personal life, including allegations of alcoholism and womanizing, but under that, McClure said, Tower’s 53-47 confirmation defeat had pragmatic roots.

“I believe that there was a view amongst some of the Senate leadership that because of Tower’s long-standing service in the Senate that he would be difficult to work with in the Defense Department,” he said.

Apart from the externals of former senators nominated for defense, McClure said it was hard for him to draw many comparisons between Hagel and Tower as they face a confirmation fight.

 RELATED: Do Senate Republicans have the votes to block Hagel?

The stakes may be higher with Hagel: he served less time in the Senate than Tower did, would be coming to work under a president who has no armed services experience, and faces the challenge of drawing down an ongoing war, while navigating urgent threats elsewhere in the world. But partisan dynamics, McClure said, remain unchanged.

“When you’ve been watching this for as long as I have been, you can pick pockets of opposition where this has happened in the past,” he said. “Circumstances may have been different. A lot of times trial balloons pop out there and they don’t go anywhere. But I don’t think Republicans are being any more difficult on President Obama than (Democratic Senate Majority Leader) George Mitchell was on President George H.W. Bush.”

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