Lobbying Battle Over Hagel Under Way Before Obama's Nod

Jan 9, 2013
Originally published on January 13, 2013 7:03 am

Weeks before President Obama officially nominated Chuck Hagel to be secretary of defense, the lobbying battle was well under way. The fight might be bigger than any other Cabinet nomination in history as the former Republican senator's friends and foes prepare for modern combat on TV and the Internet.

As important as confirming a defense secretary might be, this Senate vote will come wrapped in all sorts of other issues, too. A win is critically important for President Obama; in December, a conservative campaign demolished the chances of his apparent choice for secretary of state, Susan Rice.

"It may be stormy, it may be a difficult fight, but the president has to win on this one," says Aaron David Miller of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. "On the other side, I think the criticism is heightened by several factors."

Opposing Hagel

For one thing, Republicans want to forge a more openly assertive foreign policy than the Obama administration has employed. Another thing is that many pro-Israel groups don't trust the president's instincts on Israel, which led to an anti-Hagel campaign, which led to ads funded by conservative groups.

Michael Goldfarb, an adviser to the Emergency Committee for Israel, a group organized by conservative leader William Kristol, says it's not worried about financing more messages.

"You know, honestly, I expect people are going to be coming to us, looking to support our activities on this front," Goldfarb says. "But right now I think we have enough money in the bank to get started."

A more surprising attack came from a small, national gay organization — the Log Cabin Republicans, which ran two full-page ads in The New York Times and The Washington Post. The group attacked Hagel, not only on gay rights — which he opposed as a senator 15 years ago — but also over things he has said about U.S. policy toward Israel and Iran.

Gregory Angelo, the group's interim director, says it's not unreasonable for the Log Cabin Republicans to branch out from its core issues.

"The fact is there are some Log Cabin Republicans who put equality issues first and foremost, and there are some who put other issues first," Angelo says — issues such as small government, low taxes and a strong national defense.

"Log Cabin Republicans have forever been these two types of gay Republicans that are co-existing," he says.

Angelo declined to discuss how the group raised money for the ads.

Support For Hagel

There's a similar effort mobilizing to support Hagel, but it's lagging several steps behind.

A group of establishment foreign policy leaders called the Bipartisan Group put a pro-Hagel ad in the Times and also ran small messages in a daily email published by Politico. The funding came from longtime liberal donor Bill Benter of Pittsburgh.

Again, the topic was the Middle East. The Bipartisan Group said no one has been more steadfast than Hagel in supporting the U.S. commitment to Israel.

Brent Scowcroft, a national security adviser to two Republican presidents, was among the 11 signatories to the letter.

"I will say what I think about Chuck Hagel to anyone that asks," says Scowcroft, who has known Hagel for years. "But I don't consider myself part of a campaign."

While some of this is starting to resemble a political campaign, there is a critical difference. The electorate here is tiny: the U.S. Senate. And for the senators, it's just not a political equation.

Miller of the Wilson Center says that gives Obama an edge.

"Unless his critics — and here we're talking about Republicans in the Senate — have a compelling case to deny a sitting, re-elected, second-term president his choice for secretary of defense, then Chuck Hagel will be confirmed," Miller says.

Before that vote comes, however, the money is going to flow to political consultants and TV stations.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Good morning. Weeks before President Obama officially nominated Chuck Hagel to be secretary of defense, at a point when Hagel's name was just being floated, the lobbying battle was underway. That fight may be bigger than any other Cabinet nomination in history, as both friends and foes of the former Republican senator prepare to do battle on TV and the Internet. NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: As important as confirming a defense secretary might be, this Senate vote will come wrapped in all sorts of other issues, too. A win is critically important for President Obama. Last month, a conservative campaign demolished the chances of his apparent choice for secretary of state, Susan Rice.

Aaron David Miller of the Woodrow Wilson International Center is a former Middle East advisor to Democratic and Republican presidents.

AARON DAVID MILLER: It may be stormy. It may be a difficult fight, but the president has to win on this one. On the other side, I think the criticism is heightened by several factors.

OVERBY: For one thing, Republicans want to forge a more openly assertive foreign policy than the Obama administration has employed. And another thing: Many pro-Israel groups don't trust the president's instincts on Israel, which lead to this, the first TV ad of the anti-Hagel campaign.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL ADVERTISEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: President Obama, for Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel is not a responsible option.

OVERBY: The ad came from the Emergency Committee for Israel, a group organized by conservative leader William Kristol. It was a low-budget effort, just two days on cable in Washington, D.C. Michael Goldfarb, an advisor to the committee, says they're not worried about financing more messages.

MICHAEL GOLDFARB: You know, honestly, I expect that people are going to be coming to us looking to support our activities on this front, but right now, I think we have enough money in the bank to at least get started.

OVERBY: A more surprising attack came from a small national gay organization, the Log Cabin Republicans. They ran two full-page ads in the New York Times and the Washington Post. The group attacked Hagel, not only on gay rights - which he opposed as a senator 15 years ago - but also over things he had said about U.S. policy toward Israel and Iran.

Gregory Angelo, the group's interim director, said it's not unreasonable for the Log Cabin Republicans to branch out from their core issues.

GREGORY ANGELO: The fact is that there are some Log Cabin Republicans who put equality issues first and foremost, and there are some who put other issues first.

OVERBY: Issues, he said, such as small government, low taxes, a strong national defense.

ANGELO: And Log Cabin Republicans has forever been these two types of gay Republicans that have been coexisting.

OVERBY: Angelo declined to discuss how the group raised money for the ads. There's a similar effort mobilizing to support Hagel, but it's lagging several steps behind. A group of establishment foreign policy leaders, called the Bipartisan Group, put a pro-Hagel ad in the New York Times. It also ran small messages in a daily email published by Politico. The funding came from a longtime liberal donor, Bill Benter of Pittsburgh. Again, the topic was the Middle East. The Bipartisan Group said no one has been more steadfast than Hagel in supporting the U.S. commitment to Israel.

Brent Scowcroft was among the 11 signatories to the letter. He was national security advisor to two Republican presidents, and he's known Hagel for years.

BRENT SCOWCROFT: I will say what I think about Chuck Hagel to anybody who asks, but I don't consider myself a part of a campaign.

OVERBY: And while some of this is starting to resemble a political campaign, there is a critical difference. The electorate here is tiny: the U.S. Senate. And for the senators, it's just not a political equation. Aaron David Miller of the Wilson Center says that gives President Obama a bit of an edge.

MILLER: Unless his critics - and, here, we're talking about Republicans in the Senate - have a compelling case to deny a sitting, reelected, second-term president, his choice of Secretary of Defense, then Chuck Hagel will be confirmed.

OVERBY: But before that vote comes, the money is going to flow to political consultants and TV stations. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.