Toward the end of his appearance on yesterday morning’s “Meet the Press,” Chuck Hagel was asked to opine on President Bush’s commutation of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby’s 30-month prison sentence for lying to FBI investigators and to a grand jury.
“I was disappointed,” the Nebraska Republican said. “It was not the right decision in my opinion.”
Compared to much of the vitriol that has been hurled the President’s way on this subject, Mr. Hagel’s remark may have sounded tepid. But by the standards of the G.O.P. establishment, it is something approaching seditious.
Of course, we learned late last week that there exists a pronounced disconnect between the Beltway G.O.P. establishment that has so feverishly championed Mr. Libby’s cause and the sentiments of the party’s masses, 47 percent of whom (according to an ARG poll) disagree with the President’s commutation. And on the matter of a potential full presidential pardon for Scooter, the same poll found 70 percent of Republicans in opposition.
In other words, within his own party Mr. Hagel is hardly alone in his view – not that you’d ever get that impression listening to the GOP’s top presidential contenders, who have dutifully read from the establishment’s script, which casts Scooter Libby as the victim of a political prosecution.
And a similar disconnect exists, it seems, on the far weightier question of Iraq. The front-of-the-pack G.O.P. presidential candidates have happily parroted White House rhetoric that intimately links Iraq to the “war on terror.” At the same time, a recent poll of Iowa Republicans found that nearly 60 percent of that state’s G.O.P. base favored a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq within the next six months. On this issue too, Mr. Hagel – who has been ostracized by the White House and G.O.P. opposition for his war opposition – has many kindred spirits in the grass-roots.
“The President,” Mr. Hagel declared today, “missed a tremendous opportunity when he did not use the (Iraq Study Group’s) recommendations late last year as the basis for a bipartisan solution.” You won’t hear such a statement from Rudy, Mitt, Fred or John, but it will surely find resonance with the growing number of Republican realists now awakening to their party’s ominously depressed condition heading into the ’08 election.
Mr. Hagel, as he always is in these settings, was quizzed by guest host David Gregory about his interest in the White House contest, and as always he offered no concrete utterances, promising a decision “in the next couple of months” and not foreclosing any of his conceivable options (running for President as a Republican, running as an independent, running for Vice-President on an independent Bloomberg-led ticket, or even running for re-election to the Senate).
Because of his Iraq outspokenness – without blinking, he argued today that the war was built on an “edifice of distortion” – and because of his dawdling, few believe Mr. Hagel has a realistic shot at the G.O.P. nomination, or that he’s even that interested in pursuing it. Far more likely, it seems, is a run as Mike Bloomberg’s Number Two, should the New York mayor enter the race next year. Mr. Hagel has played footsy with that very idea before, musing about how American it would be for a “New York boy and a Nebraska boy to be teamed up leading this nation.”
“Right now, I have no plans to switch parties or to seek the presidency as an independent,” Mr. Hagel said today, hardly pooh-poohing the Bloomberg-Hagel concept, since “right now” Mr. Bloomberg has no plans to run for President.
It is very tempting, since Republicans seem now to be coming to appreciate Mr. Hagel’s wisdom on Iraq (and other controversies, like the Libby affair), to reconsider his prospects for the G.O.P. nomination. But the challenge remains prohibitive: Even if Mr. Hagel has significant intra-party company in his apostasies, he’s also been branded a traitor to the G.O.P., a charge that is particularly damning among the hard core elements of the party and significant components of its interest group base, who collectively hold great sway in the nominating process. Their opposition creates an impenetrable brick wall for Mr. Hagel, as it did for John McCain in 2000.
But in his NBC appearance today, Mr. Hagel showed that he is pretty much alone among Republicans in speaking a language that non-G.O.P. diehards – the voters who will ultimately decide who the next President of the United States is – can understand and appreciate. Where the G.O.P. front-runners awkwardly (painfully, really) step around anything that might be taken as a criticism of President Bush and his policies, Mr. Hagel is blunt and direct in confronting the administration’s increasingly obvious failures.
Progress in Iraq is “going backwards,” he said, while also stating that “we can’t continue to put our people in the middle of a civil war and think this is going to get any better” and that the war has “done so much to undermine our own interests and influence in the Middle East.”
None of this is particularly revolutionary. Surely the 70 percent or so of Americans who want their troops out of Iraq agree with all of those points. But what do those 70 percent of Americans hear when they listen to Messrs. McCain, Giuliani, Romney, and even (Fred) Thompson?
The G.O.P. is flirting with an epic electoral wipeout in 2008. National polls that match a generic, unnamed Democrat against an unnamed Republican universally show the Democrats winning handily. A similar poll last week in Virginia, a state that has voted Republican in every presidential election since 1964, gave the generic Democrat a 14-point advantage. And a separate ARG survey last week found that 45 percent of the public wants impeachment proceedings for Mr. Bush – with 54 percent favoring the same for Dick Cheney. And look closer. Among independents, the disdain for the reigning G.O.P. is even worse: They favor Bush impeachment proceedings by a 20-point margin, and by 80-19 percent oppose the President’s commutation of Libby’s sentence.
Even in good times, it is a severe challenge for a party to retain the White House for three consecutive terms, and the evidence available now indicates a degree of exasperation with Mr. Bush and his signature war that makes the prospect of G.O.P. victory in ’08 simply bleak. Among prominent Republicans, only Mr. Hagel represents a complete and total break from a style of leadership that has fallen into such disfavor.
Today, he was offered the chance to clarify a months-old statement, in which he seemed to suggest Congress might ultimately be justified in seeking Mr. Bush’s impeachment. Remarkably, Mr. Hagel refused to shoot down the idea (despite repeated questioning), saying only that “I don’t see any effort to do that today.” That is precisely the kind of talk that kills any Hagel-as-GOP-nominee chatter, and yet it places him precisely in the mainstream of mass public opinion. More important, by entertaining the idea of impeachment, Mr. Hagel communicates a powerful message to the independent-minded masses that he understands and shares their outrage over their country’s condition – something the announced G.O.P. candidates, in their frenzy to appease the party base, are ignoring at their own peril.
Pushed by NBC’s Wimbledon coverage into the 8:00 A.M. timeslot on a mid-summer Sunday morning, Mr. Hagel’s appearance likely marked “Meet the Press’s” lowest-rated telecast of the year. But any Republicans who were in front of their tubes may well have been watching the only official in their party who can win the White House in 2008.