Tuesday, February 19, 2013



Sen. John McCain (Photo by Frank Plitt)

FEBRUARY 19, 2013

A march up the hill and down again


Nobody does tough-talking better than a Republican senator. It’s not easy talking tough, and the follow-through can be even harder.

Last week John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina roasted and toasted Chuck Hagel, as if the republic would be in deadly peril if he were confirmed as secretary of defense. This week they’re assuring the White House that, well, they were just kidding. (“Can’t you guys take a joke?”)

Mr. McCain, a key Republican wise man on defense issues, insists he still thinks Mr. Hagel is not qualified to be the main man of the U.S. military, “but I don’t believe that we should hold up his nomination any further, because I think [we’ve had] a reasonable amount of time to have questions answered.”

Right on cue, Mr. Graham, who describes Mr. Hagel as not only “unqualified” but “radical,” said he had at last received a letter from Mr. Hagel in response to the questions he asked during the confirmation hearings, and he’ll take Mr. Hagel’s word that he didn’t mean all that nice stuff he said about Iran and the nasty stuff he said about the war in Iraq, the Jews and Israel.

Senators are tigers about process, less concerned about content. Standing tall when all about him, fairies and elves are losing their heads, makes a senator’s chin whiskers ache and his teeth itch. The Constitution assigns to the Senate the unique duty to “advise and consent,” but it’s a lot easier in Gasbag City to “advise and submit.” The idea behind “advise and consent” was that sometimes a president’s nominee would be so dreadful that consent must be withheld to nudge a president to reconsider his sin and repent with another nominee.

To listen to the Republicans at the Hagel hearing, you would think that both John McCain and Lindsey Graham were sure this was one of those occasions – and that the reasons were so important and so obvious that every weapon at hand, including the filibuster, must be employed to keep “one of the most unqualified, radical choices for secretary of defense in a long time” as far from the Pentagon as possible.

Maybe these worthies were just blowing smoke at the president and his choice. Maybe it was partisan scorn at a rogue and turncoat. Maybe they just didn’t like the cut of his jib. But if they really, really think Mr. Hagel is not qualified to serve, then withholding consent, even if the withholding requires parliamentary tricks and schemes, is a bounden duty.

Just why the president wants the rambling, bumbling, stumbling Chuck Hagel as his secretary of defense is a puzzle. He already has Joe Biden for comic relief. Unless it’s true, as many in Washington believe it is, that the president is determined to substitute squish for strength and Mr. Hagel shares his dream of dismantling the nation’s defenses and trusting the nation’s defense to international organizations like the United Nations. Who needs the Army, the Navy and the Marines when U.N. peacekeepers from both Upper and Lower Slobbovia could be called in to man the ramparts?

The military chiefs are doing their part, sounding the usual threats to close the orphanage and throw the kids into the cold, rainy streets unless they get the money they want. There’s enough unsequestered money for the Navy to pay a $2 billion bonus to run its ships on biofuels, instead of conventional fuel, and for the Army to continue funding a $28 billion “battlefield intelligence processor,” but not enough to send the new carrier Harry S. Truman to sea. The president thinks decisions like these will be right up Chuck Hagel’s street.

The Republican senators who sounded so fit to fight only a week ago may think they’re standing on principle and process now, but to the rest of us it looks like the same old Washington game of endless palaver and expensive pretense. Why did these guys make such a big deal of something they knew they wouldn't get genuinely excited about in the end?

Messrs McCain and Graham should now lead a chorus of that old English folk song about the Duke of York, who sounds a lot like a Republican senator: “Oh, the grand old Duke of York, he had ten thousand men; He marched them up to the top of the hill, and he marched them down again.”

Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.

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