Once Hagel was rumored to be President Barack Obama’s pick to replace outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, the long knives were turned on the former Republican senator from Nebraska. Conservatives painted Hagel as soft on Israel, with a nasty whisper campaign that the blunt-spoken ex-senator might be anti-Semitic. One newcomer to the Senate, Tea Party favorite Ted Cruz of Texas, did his best Joe McCarthy imitation, hinting via deceptive editing and leading questions that something isn’t quite right about Hagel.
There there’s the Friends of Hamas. Unfamiliar with this group that is presumably chummy with terrorists? That’s because it doesn’t exist. That didn’t stop a conservative website posing as a news source from claiming otherwise.
Breitbart News editor-at-large Ben Shapiro reported that “Senate sources” told him that Hagel had been on the payroll of “Friends of Hamas.” It turned out that no such group exists, and even the notion of Friends of Hamas originated from a fatuous question from an inquisitive reporter.
That this rumor spread across the right wing is telling because it describes the lengths at which Hagel’s foes would go to damage his nomination. The smearing and foot-dragging strategy came to an end Tuesday when the Senate confirmed Hagel’s nomination on a 58-41 vote.
So, what’s at play when a former Republican senator can only secure four Republican votes? Of course, the answer is partisanship. No matter Hagel’s strengths and shortcomings, his nomination by Obama was seen as one Republicans had a chance of defeating. It wouldn’t be easy, but it was possible, especially if some smoking gun could be found to indict Hagel.
Talk radio, conservative websites and Fox News let loose the big guns. The Senate committee hearing, where the nominee did himself no favors by bumbling through his answers, was a chance for Republican senators to create more anti-Hagel buzz. Through legislative maneuvers, Republicans managed to put off a vote of the full Senate for a few weeks.
It was a remarkable job by the Senate’s minority party, especially because the smears against Hagel didn’t really hold water in the first place. Four Republicans voted for Hagel — Thad Cochran of Mississippi, Richard Shelby of Alabama, Mike Johanns of Nebraska and Rand Paul of Kentucky.
We can only imagine the immense lobbying Shelby endured before casting his vote in favor of Hagel. Alabama can be proud that its senior senator persevered in doing the right thing.