The Chuck Hagel Factor

032608 hagel web The Chuck Hagel FactorIn some ways, Chuck Hagel’s dilemma mirrors the one that independent voters may find themselves confronting this fall.

On the one hand, Hagel harbors an enduring personal fondness for John McCain, his fellow Vietnam veteran and maverick Republican senator. “A good friend of mine—a dear friend, as a matter of fact” is how Hagel described McCain in an ABC News interview over the weekend.

And in the past, that kinship was more then enough. When McCain ran for president in 2000, Hagel backed him without blinking—one of very few Senate Republicans to climb aboard the “Straight Talk Express.”

But this time around, there’s the issue of the Iraq war and, more broadly, the sweeping neoconservative vision of U.S. foreign policy unapologetically championed by McCain. The Arizonan accuses those who favor a withdrawal from Iraq of wanting to “surrender to Al Qaeda” and—despite the manifest disaster of the past five years—still spurns the idea of engagement with other Middle East countries and happily encourages talk of preemptive U.S. intervention in Iran.

This approach couldn’t be further from the one favored by Hagel, an old-school “realist” Republican whose pragmatic foreign policy views have become anathema to the Republican Party of McCain and George W. Bush. McCain has been running for president for well over a year now—but this time, Hagel hasn’t even come close to endorsing him.

“John and I have some pretty fundamental disagreements on the future of foreign policy,” he admitted in the same ABC interview.

Besides the Republican label, tattered and unsightly after eight years of Bush, McCain’s main Achilles’ heel in this election is probably the war, which polls still show voters oppose by a two-to-one margin.

So far, this hasn’t actually hurt McCain, because his intimate association with the war—and the foreign policy vision that produced it—is understood by relatively few self-identified war opponents. By a 54-to-40-percent margin, according to a new Gallup poll, voters think McCain would handle Iraq better than Barack Obama. In a Los Angeles Times poll, the spread was 13 points.

This is easily explained: Most casual voters follow little more than the headlines coming out of Iraq. They’ve seen and heard enough to understand that the war has mainly been counterproductive, but they haven’t devoted the time or effort to appreciate why. In McCain, they simply see a personally appealing maverick and decorated war hero—just the kind of guy American needs to clean up its Iraq mess.

The key question is whether the independent voters who now oppose the war but support McCain anyway will, by the end of the fall campaign, end up seeing McCain the same way that Chuck Hagel now does. If they do, McCain will probably lose. But if they don’t, then he just might pull off the remarkable feat of winning as the pro-war candidate of the pro-war party at a time when nearly 70 percent of voters say they’re antiwar.

And Hagel himself could play a significant role in determining how independent voters ultimately perceive McCain. It’s almost unfathomable that Hagel will end up endorsing McCain, since Hagel has staked his entire political reputation and Senate legacy on his break with his party over the foreign policy it has embraced. Last year, when McCain’s presidential campaign seemed lifeless and doomed, Hagel appeared ready to bolt the G.O.P. for a third-party run, perhaps with Mike Bloomberg, an idea that fizzled when McCain and Obama—two candidates with powerful appeal to independents—emerged as the likely nominees.

Now that McCain is the Republican candidate, Hagel faces a tug of war between his conscience and a personal relationship.

Conceivably, he could try to split the difference by refusing the endorse McCain but only speaking out against him sparingly. Given that Hagel lacks the broad name recognition of a presidential candidate, such an approach might allow him to appease his conscience without inflicting a mortal wound on the political ambition of his “dear friend.” And if Obama were to defeat McCain anyway, Hagel would still be a logical candidate for an influential Cabinet role, possibly as defense secretary.

But if he wants to, Hagel can do much more than that. He is leaving the Senate after this year, forced out—in part—by the threat of a Republican primary challenge from a candidate who would have played up Hagel’s “disloyalty” to the party on the war. At 62 years old, he has no national future in the G.O.P., either as a presidential candidate or in the cabinet of a President McCain. Politically, he has nothing to lose in making a loud and lasting break with McCain and the Republican Party.

Undoubtedly, Obama and the Democrats would welcome Hagel in virtually any role he’d be willing to play in the general-election campaign. Right now, Obama’s top military backer is retired General Tony McPeak, a former Air Force chief of staff. Hagel would add instant and badly needed gravitas to Obama, boosting his effort to convince independents to overlook McCain’s “experience.” Hagel’s presence as a prime-time speaker at the Democratic convention, in television advertisements and news programs, and on the fall campaign trail would speak directly to voters who share his personal regard for McCain and who may not yet realize just how radically his foreign policy values differ from theirs. It’s not even impossible to envision Hagel as Obama’s running mate.

It’s hard to believe Chuck Hagel will do anything to help John McCain win the White House. The question is how much will he do to keep him from doing so.