You can probably dismiss Chuck Hagel as a Presidential prospect. The Nebraska Republican, a media darling but a Bush administration enemy thanks to his blunt criticisms of the war, faces a loose, self-imposed end-of-the-summer deadline to declare whether he’ll seek the White House next year.
It’s increasingly difficult to see how he could possibly do it.
In theory, Mr. Hagel could still opt to join the 10 (soon to be 11) other Republicans who are seeking the G.O.P.’s nomination, calculating that there remains an opening for a mainstream—read: not Ron Paul—anti-war voice with an agreeably conservative track record. He could also declare his independence from the G.O.P. and launch a third-party campaign. Or he could even do what John B. Anderson did in 1980: Run first in the G.O.P. primaries, and then as an independent.
The Hagel speculation began more than a year ago, but as he’s dawdled in making up his mind—he called a press conference in March, only to announce that he’d have an announcement at a later date—new obstacles have emerged that block his most logical paths to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Specifically, Michael Bloomberg’s unmistakable interest in an indie bid of his own has put Mr. Hagel in a tricky spot if he wants the top job for himself. If Mr. Bloomberg, who could toss hundreds of millions of dollars into such an effort, does decide to run (a move he almost certainly won’t make before next February), there will be no room for another third-party candidate.
Of course, Mr. Hagel, who dined with Mr. Bloomberg in New York not long ago, could almost certainly have the No. 2 spot on a Bloomberg ticket. He himself publicly mused about such a pairing in May on Face the Nation, slyly observing that “It’s a great country to think about—a New York boy and a Nebraska boy to be teamed up leading this nation.”
But that kind of talk is simply suicidal for anyone who has designs on winning the Republican nomination. Mr. Hagel is fond of pointing out that he has one of the most conservative voting records in the Senate, but his credentials are awfully suspect with the right, which regards his outspokenness on the war as an act of partisan disloyalty. To wage a credible G.O.P. bid, Mr. Hagel would need to quell concerns that he’s not a team player—not exacerbate them.
Instead, he also used his Face the Nation appearance to proclaim, for instance, that he is “not happy with the Republican Party today” and to argue that America needs “some new, fresh, independent ideas to lead this country forward.” At this point, a G.O.P. bid by Mr. Hagel would be undercut from start to finish by questions about whether he was merely using the primaries to build name recognition before ultimately joining up with Mr. Bloomberg. Given his statements to this point, any denials would be unconvincing. And given Mr. Bloomberg’s apparent timetable, speculation about him running will persist through the G.O.P. nominating process.
Since they hit it off so well at their dinner, it certainly is conceivable that Mr. Hagel and Mr. Bloomberg have already reached an understanding of sorts, and that Mr. Hagel’s otherwise puzzling delays have merely been an effort to buy time while Mr. Bloomberg inches toward a bid.
And Mr. Hagel would obviously be an asset to any Bloomberg ticket, providing vital attributes that the Mayor now lacks: a decorated Vietnam combat record, foreign-policy fluency, a dozen years of legislative experience and widespread respect among the national press corps and Washington insiders. And it goes without saying that Mr. Hagel’s principled breaks with his party and its President will play well with independent voters, and a good chunk of Democrats and Republicans as well.
But Mr. Hagel’s appeal as a Vice Presidential candidate may not quite match the expectations of insiders. The problem is that he is mostly an unknown commodity among the masses right now, a name recognized by fewer than 40 percent of voters in a recent survey. Running for the G.O.P. nomination—and faring respectably—would take care of that problem. But since he’s wandered so far off the reservation—and wasted so much time—it’s no longer realistic to believe Mr. Hagel could rise much above asterisk status in the G.O.P. race.
Mr. Hagel’s standing right now is similar to that of John McCain in 1999, when insiders saw his potentially wide appeal, even though few voters had heard of him. Mr. McCain’s stunning New Hampshire win and subsequent martyrdom turned him into the most popular political figure in the country, one who would have made a formidable independent candidate himself in 2000 had he switched gears after the primaries.
But such political deification will elude Mr. Hagel. He may well end up running for national office next year. But if he does, it will be as the lesser-known sidekick of New York’s Mayor. Not as a rock star.