There is a tinge of deja vu over the reaction to Pres. Obama's nomination of Republican former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel to be secretary of defense.
Despite the fact that Hagel is one of their own, at least nominally, Republicans have quickly mounted a vigorous, almost gleeful, campaign to oppose him.
Meanwhile, reaction from the president's supporters has been, well, tepid, at best.
The dynamics of this are eerily similar to the debate over health insurance reform four years ago -- a political bungle by the new president and his party's leadership that dispirited their base and paved the way for the tea party takeover the House in the 20102 midterms and all the calamities that have beset the nation as a result.
Democrats who follow these things remember Sen. Hagel as a run-of-the-mill Republican jerk — a John McCain mini-me, similar to Lindsey Graham now and Joe Lieberman before he retired.
But in one incident from the late 1990s — the Republican filibuster of the nomination of James Hormel, who was gay, to be ambassador to Luxembourg — Hagel’s position was to the right of McCain’s and more in line with that of Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, a world-renown racist and homophobe, who chaired the Foreign Affairs Committee.
Hagel said then that he opposed Hormel because Hormel, a Democratic donor and philanthropist, was “openly, aggressively gay.” McCain, by contrast, sent a spokesman out who suggested that his boss hadn’t given the nomination much thought — although, said the spokesman, Hormel had “personally assured” McCain that he would “advance the interests of the United States. And the senator takes him at his word.”
Hagel’s position on the Hormel filibuster undoubtedly reflected the views of the Nebraska Republicans whose votes he needed. And his comments were milder than remarks by some of his colleagues. When then-Majority Leader Trent Lott was asked about it, he famously opined that homosexuality was a treatable condition, you know, like alcoholism or kleptomania. Then-Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma said Hormel promoted “immoral behavior,” according to the Bible, and since homosexual behavior is “a sin … if one promotes that behavior, that person shouldn’t be a representative of this country.”
(And, predictably, then-Sen. Tim Hutchinson, R-Ark., one of three “family values” senators who sponsored the Hormel filibuster, later revealed he was having an extramarital affair with a staffer that had started before the filibuster and was still going on when he voted to impeach Pres. Clinton for lying in a civil lawsuit deposition about an affair with a staffer.)
Clinton eventually used a recess appointment to give Hormel the job.
So, recalling Hagel’s record from that period, Democrats today wonder why Obama would choose him as a nominee. There are plenty of well-qualified Democrats out there, so why choose someone who hewed to right-wing extremism and opposed a Democratic president over something as trivial, frankly, as the ambassadorship to Luxembourg?
Back in 2009, a lot of Democrats were similarly uneasy with Pres. Obama’s decision to base his historic health-insurance reform plan on the Republicans’ individual-mandate model, rather than the liberal model: Medicare for all — the model that is the basis, in one form or another, of the health systems in nearly all the United States’ competitor and allied nations.
Republicans responded by ignoring the fact that the individual mandate was developed by the Heritage Foundation, a right-wing Washington think tank, in the 1990s, and that it had been put into practice by GOP Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in 2006, and mounted a multi-million dollar campaign to kill the their own plan, simply because a Democratic president had adopted it.
Throughout that summer, hundreds of mostly middle-aged and elderly Republicans flash-mobbed congressional townhalls to express their rage over what they had been led to believe was a “socialist” plan, even though what it actually did was force people to buy health insurance from private corporations.
“Keep the government out of my Medicare!” one man shouted at a town hall. As anger mounted over the next weeks and months, gun nuts armed with loaded weapons started showing up at the events.
Later, using funding from billionaire oligarchs and the talents of con artists like Dick Armey and Sarah Palin, Republicans astroturfed the tea party, a national movement that enraged thousands of low-info Republican voters and drove them into the streets with their famously poorly spelled signs.
In a perfect world, the president’s supporters would have answered the tea partyists’ nonsense by flooding the field with counter-protests — liberals with perfectly spelled signs would have taken to the streets in support of Obama’s plan.
But that did not happen, and the reason it didn’t was the fact that liberals’ support for the Heritage mandate was as tepid then as their response to the Hagel nomination is now.
Dire consequences resulted from this, not just for Pres. Obama but for the nation and its future. With no equal, opposite movement against it, tea party-fed anger spread in 2010, and the midterms that November became a wave election driven by the demand to repeal Obamacare.
About 60 tea party affiliated candidates won seats in the House, tilting control to the GOP. The tea-party minority then seized control of the House leadership, forcing them to stall the economy for the sole purpose of making the president unpopular and then recklessly drive it up to one harrowing brink of disaster after another, including nearly sending it over the fiscal cliff earlier this month.
Now, in opposition to the nomination of one of their own to be secretary of defense, Republicans are engaged in a campaign to discredit Hagel. They have sent Cheney-era national security and defense spin artists out to blanket cable news with litanies of votes Hagel took and letters he refused to sign that are supposed to prove he hates Israel and loves Iran.
But, as was the case four years ago, there is no equal, opposite reaction from Democrats in support of Hagel — and the response from the party’s base is not just tepid, it is apathetic. Hardly anyone on the left cares whether Hagel wins Senate approval. If he does, fine. If not — eh.
Four years ago, as rage on the right over Obamacare grew, key voter blocks in the Democratic base became increasingly dispirited and disengaged. When it came time to vote in November 2010, millions of them simply stayed home.
Granted, it is unlikely that Hagel’s defeat would be similarly dispiriting. But why risk it so unnecessarily? Democrats from the president on down need to make keeping the base engaged and energized a top priority so that the dire mistakes of 2010 are not repeated in 2014.