The Man Who Hijacked The Straight-Talk Express

020507 article wiseguys The Man Who Hijacked  The Straight Talk ExpressChuck Hagel is the new John McCain.

The old straight-talking, damn-the-talking-points John McCain, it is now clear, ceased to exist in the summer of 2004, when he put an emphatic end to four years of well-grounded chatter that he’d abandon the Republican Party and mount a Teddy Roosevelt–style Presidential bid as an independent.

Instead, Mr. McCain threw himself headlong into an effort to re-elect President George W. Bush—the same man he once charged with “twisting the truth like Clinton.” (And this was before the President had ever uttered a word about W.M.D. or uranium enrichment.) Public courtships of Jerry Falwell and creationism enthusiasts soon followed.

Mr. McCain is now running as a Republican’s Republican, a crafty (if transparent) ploy in a party that, as he has learned from painful personal experience, favors those who don’t rock the boat and wait their turn.

Mr. Hagel, meanwhile, has taken up where Mr. McCain left off, scorning his party’s high priests and relieving himself in their sacred temples. Now, the 60-year-old Nebraskan—like Mr. McCain, a decorated Vietnam veteran—is edging toward parlaying that appealing independence into a Presidential bid.

Just as the old John McCain fueled his unforgettable 2000 Presidential run with a lonely crusade for campaign-finance reform against the G.O.P.’s most powerful interest groups, Mr. Hagel’s burgeoning reputation is a product of his blunt denunciations of the Republican architects of the Iraq War and their enablers.

“To question your government is not unpatriotic,” he declared last year. “To not question your government is unpatriotic.”

When Condoleezza Rice lobbied his Foreign Relations Committee for a troop “augmentation” in Iraq, he belittled her benign rhetoric and asserted that the administration’s proposed surge represented “the most dangerous foreign-policy blunder in this country since Vietnam.”

And two Sundays ago, Mr. Hagel even called out Joe Lieberman—a Zell Miller–like hero to the Republican faithful—on national television, reminding the sanctimonious Connecticut solon that he’s not the only public figure who thinks about his children and grandchildren when making crucial decisions.

All of this has won Mr. Hagel, like Mr. McCain seven years ago, widespread acclaim—except from those who hold sway in Republican primaries.

The ceiling for a maverick Republican may well have been reached by Mr. McCain in 2000, when he trounced Mr. Bush in New Hampshire and ultimately won just seven primaries. Mr. McCain rightly boasted in that campaign that he’d caught lightning in a bottle—and even with that, it wasn’t all that close.

Mr. Hagel, by contrast, lacks the celebrity with which Mr. McCain, a former hero P.O.W., entered the race six years ago. And where Mr. McCain projected a spirited, rascally personality that entranced the reporters who covered him, Mr. Hagel’s manner is more consistent with the dour Midwesterner he actually is.

At the same time, the two Senators have a deep and abiding personal bond, rooted in their military backgrounds and burnished by their shared outsider status in the clubby world of the U.S. Senate. By all appearances, they remain close, despite their divergent views on Iraq and Mr. McCain’s steps to ingratiate himself with establishment G.O.P. Senators like Trent Lott.

It shouldn’t be entirely surprising, then, that Mr. Hagel appears to be sliding neatly into Mr. McCain’s place, as independents, Democrats and media members sing his praises and lament what’s become of their old hero.

Indeed, approbation for Mr. Hagel’s political courage now litters the liberal blogosphere, where he is held in higher regard than even some Democrats. And a poll in Nebraska last year actually found Mr. Hagel to be more popular among Democrats than among his fellow Republicans.

Mr. Hagel has an opening to pursue the Presidency, and he owes it to Mr. McCain’s assiduous pursuit of the G.O.P. base. Although his voting record is squarely conservative, his conspicuous adherence to principle over party could make him the “It” candidate with the broad American middle—just like Mr. McCain was in 2000.

Then things would get interesting. Would Mr. Hagel gamble that, unlike Mr. McCain, he could succeed as a renegade in a Republican primary? Would he consider taking the third-party gamble that Mr. McCain shied away from? Or, like his friend from Arizona did before him, would he decide to be a good Republican and wait for his turn in 2012?