The Conditional Retirement of Chuck Hagel

Chuck Hagel may have announced his retirement from politics on Monday, but he didn’t quite foreclose the possibility of running

Chuck Hagel may have announced his retirement from politics on Monday, but he didn’t quite foreclose the possibility of running for another office. The dream of a Bloomberg-Hagel presidential ticket next year, as far as the Senator is concerned, is very much alive.

“I will not seek a third term in the United States Senate,” the 60-year-old Mr. Hagel declared at an Omaha press conference, “nor do I intend to be a candidate for any office in 2008.”

Note his refusal to apply the definitive term “will not” to the second half of that sentence. In politics, “I will not” and “I don’t intend to” are two radically different sentiments. If this seems like an exercise in semantics, just consider the recent case of Larry Craig.

"It is with sadness and deep regret,” Mr. Craig said five days after his restroom habits became the subject of water cooler chatter around the country, “that I announce it is my intention to resign from the Senate effective September 30.”

Shortly after he uttered those words, of course, we learned—thanks to a voicemail that the luckless Mr. Craig intended for his lawyer but inexplicably left on the wrong phone—that the senator had been playing word games. Seizing on the sudden willingness of Senator Arlen Specter to rise to his defense, Mr. Craig said that he had “reshaped” his pending statement “to say it is my intent to resign on September 30.”

Like Mr. Craig, who wanted (and may still want) to retain his Senate seat, Mr. Hagel had good reason to leave himself some wiggle room. Mr. Bloomberg has not definitively ruled out an independent presidential bid next year, and Mr. Hagel clearly has an interest in running with him if the mayor jumps in.

Earlier this year, the two dined together and afterwards Mr. Hagel went on national television to say that, “It's a great country to think about – a New York boy and a Nebraska boy to be teamed up leading this nation.” Shortly thereafter, Mr. Bloomberg formally switched his party registration to independent, and all year he has kept up a schedule that has him traveling to country to sound off on a host of issues only marginally related to his duties as New York’s mayor.

The only political options that Mr. Hagel explicitly foreclosed this week are an ‘08 Senate re-election bid and a campaign of his own for the White House. These declarations barely qualify as news. Mr. Hagel had sent clear signals all year that he was done with the Senate, and would-be successors from both parties—including several who said they would never run against Mr. Hagel—laid the groundwork for campaigns of their own. And, even though he was initially talked up as a candidate, he took no steps to pursue a presidential bid. Indeed, it’s been apparent since at least early this summer that the only scenario in which Mr. Hagel would be a candidate for office next year would be as Mr. Bloomberg’s Number Two. And when he was specifically asked in Omaha this week about his potential participation in a third-party ticket, Mr. Hagel replied only that “I’m not going to get into speculation or hypotheticals”—another decree straight from The Politician’s Guide to Preserving Your Options.

Mr. Hagel and Mr. Bloomberg clearly recognize the unique value that each of them would bring to a potential partnership.

Mr. Bloomberg would have to run at the top of the ticket. He’s the one who would be supplying the bottomless pile of cash, which would instantly level the financial playing field with the major party candidates. He’d also be able to leverage his impressive executive experience and rapidly expanding national profile—aided by a media that’s largely fallen in love with his management of the nation’s largest city.

Mr. Hagel, by contrast, has carved out a reputation mainly within the Beltway. But his personal story is compelling and easy to market, both through the media and through ads paid for with Mr. Bloomberg’s money: A Vietnam combat veteran who trusted his President and backed the initial invasion of Iraq, only to grow disillusioned and emerge as a principled and defiant foe of the war—and his own party. It’s the same basic maverick-versus-the-machine story that helped transform John McCain from an unknown senator into the nation’s most popular politician in 2000.

What is interesting is that Mr. Hagel could easily have sought the G.O.P. presidential nomination and potentially enjoyed a meteoric rise similar to Mr. McCain’s seven years ago. But he resisted, perhaps understanding the likelihood that his success, like Mr. McCain’s in 2000, would be short-lived.

And so Mr. Hagel is willing to subordinate himself to Mr. Bloomberg’s ambition.

The mayor, for the record, has been saying the following about 2008: “I am not running.”

Which, of course, is not quite the same as “I will not run.”

The Conditional Retirement of Chuck Hagel