Chuck Hagel: Bloomberg Republican

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.

Chuck Hagel: Bloomberg Republican