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Why the Kamikaze Campaign Against Hagel?

[ 90 ] February 27, 2013 |

Why did the GOP go down Yamato-style, guns blazing on a suicide mission against impossible odds in the Hagel fight?  Conor Friedersdorf’s suggests that part of the answer is information asymmetry, bred by the conservative echo chamber:

But Americans who get their news from anti-Hagel conservatives discovered Tuesday that much of the analysis they’ve long been fed on this subject left them as misinformed about the likely course of events as they were about Mitt Romney’s prospects for victory during Election 2012. Of course, a single nomination battle isn’t nearly so consequential as a presidential election. This is nevertheless another reminder for the rank-and-file on the right: Demand better from the journalists whose work you patronize, or remain at an information disadvantage relative to consumers of a “mainstream media” that is regularly outperforming conservative journalists.

I don’t think that this is entirely wrong, but I also don’t think it’s quite right. First, I don’t think that the rank-and-file on the right are terribly interested in repairing this information disadvantage; who wants to hear unpleasant things? I also think it’s reasonably clear that there are no rewards within movement conservative journalism for accuracy. Rather, imaginative, well constructed adherence to the editorial line of of the Commentary-National Review-Weekly Standard Axis leads to upward mobility, with the Free Bacon and the Daily Tucker provide entry points into the machine. I find this simultaneously abhorrent and admirable; you have to respect a movement so certain of itself that it feels no need to bother with inconvenient aspects of reality.

More broadly, I think that it’s wrong to read the “to-the-barricades” style journalism on Hagel as symptomatic simply of the closed information loop. While there’s some danger in imposing too much solidarity on the neocon faction of the Republican elite, I think it’s fair to say that the faction has done an excellent job of institutionalizing message coherence. Effective control over the two most important think tanks and several of the most important journals helps in that regard. I suspect that the decision to maintain the fight against Hagel even after it became obvious to everyone that it was hopeless rests on two foundations, one strategic and one cultural.

The strategic logic of holding out beyond hope in the Hagel battle is that the fight isn’t really about Hagel; it’s about control of the foreign policy apparatus of the Republican Party. Hagel is representative of the realist faction that neocons loathe. The old guard of that faction (Powell, Scowcroft, Hagel) is leaving the scene, but the Tea Party holds some disturbingly isolationist ideas, and may even value tax cuts (gasp!) over foreign wars and a high defense budget. Fighting the Hagel fight (especially as Hagel represents apostasy) is a fabulous way of asserting the grip of the neocon faction over GOP foreign policy, and narrowing the debate such that alternative views become “extreme.” In this context, it’s clearly very interesting that Rand Paul ended up voting against cloture both times, and against for the nomination, although Paul may have had his own reasons. In any case, forcing the Hagel fight is about launching a winning an intra-party battle, and doesn’t have much to do with Obama at all. The secondary logic here is that if the neocons hold the reins in the GOP, they’re assured of a strong position in the next GOP administration, and there will eventually be another GOP administration, whether in 2016, or 2020, or 2024.

The cultural story runs as follows; one of the central planks of neoconservative foreign policy thinking is the important of resolve. Resolve aids both deterrence and compellence; throwing a country against the wall now and again enhances U.S. power and prestige. If resolve works on the international level, it probably works on the domestic level. The Hagel fight represented a cheap opportunity to display resolve; even in a hopeless fight, the neocons show that they’re willing to push beyond all reasonable means to carry on the struggle. The strategy works if Obama thinks twice about the next potentially controversial nominee, or if other elements in the GOP respect the display of resolve. Indeed, difficult, hopeless fights represent fantastic opportunities for developing a reputation for resolve, if you believe that sort of thing matters (and I don’t).

I don’t know how much either of these logics contributed to the Hagel suicide mission, and again it’s always dangerous to impute clear motivations to a faction, which is an informal organization that includes multiple actors with a variety of motives.  Nevertheless, I suspect it’s wrong to think that the neocons just didn’t understand the odds against Hagel.

Comments (90)

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  1. Clark says:

    I believe Paul voted for the nomination, after voting against cloture.

  2. somethingblue says:

    The strategy works if Obama thinks twice about the next potentially controversial nominee.

    Except that anybody Obama nominates is unacceptable to them, because see first half of this sentence. Bibi Netanyahu would have been unacceptable to them, if nominated by the gay Kenyan usurper. So I don’t see what they gain by having him think twice.

    • LosGatosCA says:

      Correct. The Republicans are motivated by only three things at this point:

      1. Being primaried – soft on Obama’s appointments is a clear sign of heresy.
      2. Tax cuts for rich people.
      3. And fighting for lost causes that prove they are principled (because that means they are not motivated just by the simple joy of winning.

      Far from finding themselves demoralized over ‘losing’ over Hagel, they seek these clarifying moments of loyalty testing the team. Do you want to be a conservative Republican TeaBagger or are you a sellout who seeks favor with the disloyal enemy?i

      The echo chamber is not leading them anywhere they don’t already want to go.

      • Robert Farley says:

        But they haven’t responded in the same way to every nominee; Kerry sailed through, Lew sailed through. Maybe DoD matters more (although I’d say State would be more important for scoring points), but I think that Hagel was seen as representing a special opportunity.

        • mpowell says:

          I think it’s a critical mass thing. Once they see other people objecting, all the movement conservatives want to jump onboard. And DoD probably stands out more. If everyone ignores a nomination, it’s like it never happened. These people are less concerned with reality than with image.

          • STH says:

            Yes, and I figured this sort of pointless grandstanding had the most to do with the next election. Ted Cruz is building name recognition and the ol’ Crazy Cred with the base.

        • LosGatosCA says:

          Hagel was a turncoat and any Republican that supported him was a fellow traveler.

          His nomination was a loyalty test for the Goopers.

          • Kurzleg says:

            I think the turncoat angle is more important than the ones Farley mentions. Not to their exclusion, but I’d say it was the animating factor.

          • david mizner says:

            Yeah, I think Farley gives the opposition to much credit. McCain made it clear:

            “To be honest with you, Neil, it goes back to– there’s a lot of ill will towards Senator Hagel because when he was a Republican, he attacked President Bush mercilessly, at one point said he was the worst president since Herbert Hoover, said the surge was the worst blunder since the Vietnam War, which is nonsense, and was anti his own party and people,” McCain said.

            This was payback and it was personal. It was largely about Hagel’s breakup with McCain. The two of them used to be “maverick” buddies, but then came Iraq and Hagel refused to support McCain in 2008. And notice McCain’s reference to Vietnam: that was in there too.

            Not to mention Israel. AIPAC didn’t go all out against Hagel for fear of revealing the limits of its considerable power, but the anti-Hagel hostility of the broader “pro-Israel” machine was a factor. Hagel, after all, is such an anti-semite he points out that Israel’s action might not be in the best interest of the U.S. Unacceptable.

            • Anna in PDX says:

              I still don’t understand why McCain forgave Bush for scurrilous rumors about his own relatives, but won’t forgive this sort of thing about purely policy issues.

        • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

          Would Kerry have sailed through had Scott Brown said early in the process that he wouldn’t seek Kerry’s seat? I don’t honestly know.

          • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

            Also: Kerry was nominated only after the GOP had successfully (or at least told themselves that they had successfully) nixed a Rice nomination. He was already a sign of victory.

          • SamR says:

            Yeah, I actually thought the real motive for the anti-Rice rumblings among the GOP was to make Kerry the choice and give them a shot at that seat.

            I’d note that even if Brown made it clear he wasn’t seeking the seat, a special election in MA worked out well in the past for GOPers. Even if Brown’s bow-out drops the chance of a GOPer elected from 40% to 20%, that’s still not nothing. And Brown was a nobody State Senator when he beat Coakley.

            In fact, I think the GOP tends to go easy when Obama nominates Dems currently holding office to Admin offices—Hillary, Napolitano, Sebelius, Gary Locke…I don’t recall noise about any of them.

        • Reilly says:

          Kerry sailed through

          After they burned Susan Rice at the stake. They defeated a strong female PoC and in the process fed the flames of the Benghazi conspiracy theory. That was a twofer; domestic cultural validation for the white male prerogative crowd, and hints of weakness, incompetence and some vague Anti-Americanism for the neocon crowd (with much cross-over between those two). It wouldn’t have been possible to rebrand Kerry with the “he seems French and effete” charge. Besides that, he was generally seen on the right as a token of White House surrender.

          As for Lew, they would have had to create a narrative, and I’m not assuming they couldn’t, but maybe the caricature didn’t present itself easily enough. The mob won’t burn someone in effigy who they don’t recognize, or recognize as “enemy”.

          For the most part somethingblue is correct; it’s all about Obama. But not simply Obama the person, but Obama as nominal leader of not-GOP. I’m not one to drop the overused “tribal” too often, but no analysis of Republican political behavior can leave out the fact that their tribal disdain is visceral, and their actions arising from that can’t always be categorized as strategy.

      • UserGoogol says:

        Although Republicans are craven assholes, I think it’s too easy to attribute all their behavior to that. Politicians do in fact have beliefs.

  3. Murc says:

    Why did the GOP go down Yamato-style, guns blazing on a suicide mission against impossible odds in the Hagel fight?

    I am very sad that that link went to a video about the actual Yamato and not the Space Battleship Yamato.

  4. Benjamin says:

    What was the downside for the Republicans’ (albeit brief) filibuster? Filibustering isn’t exactly a finite resource that they’ve squandered and can’t spend on a SCOTUS nomination. (Perhaps the opposite.)

    • LosGatosCA says:

      The patience of the independents for the endless grandstanding of their obstruction is definitely a finite resource. The Goopers scorched earth strategy on the debt limit, fiscal cliff, sequestration, Hagel’s nomination, the consumer board, and every other damn thing is definitely consuming the goodwill of the independents. A government shutdown and a SCOTUS filibuster could very well be a tipping point for 2014.

      • witless chum says:

        Independents actually paying attention to what is going on in Congress is a pretty finite resource, too. The GOP is generally banking on the idea that this will be seen as just politics as usual stuff that Both Sides Do by the pay attention every four years squad. That and gerrymandering make 2014 pretty unlikely to bring anything new.

        • Cody says:

          In an ideal world, there would be real political backlash. “I didn’t elect my congress person to do nothing!”. Unfortunately, CNN will just tell us that both sides are causing all these filibusters.

  5. Martin says:

    How this all doesn’t add up to eternal electoral failure is beyond me. I’m with Friedersdorf. Faced with endless Democratic rule in the White House, the GOP will temper its isolationism, mature beyond resolve alone as a foreign policy lodestone, etc. Also I think the message coherence thing describes the GOP of previous years, not 2013. And beyond that, your post manages somehow to be far more conspiracy-minded than virtually anything I read here. I suspect things aren’t as single-explanation (in tendency) as you’re depicting here.

    • Murc says:

      How this all doesn’t add up to eternal electoral failure is beyond me.

      One of the things that keeps me up at night is the possibility that maybe, just maybe, the Republicans have figured something out: that policy doesn’t matter, at all. Politics are pendulum, and it doesn’t matter how moon-bayingly mad you are; the voters are likely to return you to power every eight to sixteen years or so anyway.

      I’m not saying this is the case. But it MIGHT be the case. In 2016 there are gonna be plenty of voters who only vaguely remember the Bush years. In 2010, with the worst postwar administration only two years behind them, the American people returned Republicans to power even though they hadn’t changed a bit.

      Policy just straight up might not be an insurmountable barrier to electoral victory. Will it have some effect? Absolutely. Enough of an effect to keep Republicans out of office forever? I am skeptical.

      • Robert Farley says:

        I think the logic would be that a) foreign policy usually doesn’t matter, and b) the foreign policy that neocons espouse occasionally turns out to be an electoral asset.

        • Mister Harvest says:

          I think you are right. When foreign policy is an issue in a Presidential election, it favors the side that has painted itself as Tough and Resolute. There’s no real electoral downside in “Whatever happens, we have got: The Maxim gun, and they have not.”

        • Martin says:

          Maybe. I still say this reads better on paper than tracks to reality. Who likes hearing unpleasant things? Well, lots of people, under different circumstances. Rhetorically that sounds right but I’m not sure it is. Similarly, no rewards for accuracy etc. — I think that logic works a lot better when the GOP is consistently winning elections, which the GOP currently isn’t doing. Those rewards aren’t static; Glenn Beck doesn’t work at Fox anymore; etc.

          I think my theory would be that, unusually in our country’s history, one party is developing a reputation for trying to handle things in a grown-up way and the other is not. The foreign policy and the domestic policy are rather of a piece here. And the trends that will force the GOP to adopt more adult policies, eventually, will also affect their foreign policy platform. But I might be a Pollyanna, I don’t know.

      • Josh G. says:

        I’m not saying this is the case. But it MIGHT be the case. In 2016 there are gonna be plenty of voters who only vaguely remember the Bush years. In 2010, with the worst postwar administration only two years behind them, the American people returned Republicans to power even though they hadn’t changed a bit.

        As things currently stand, the Republicans can’t get anyone except older white men and older married white women to vote for them. With rapidly changing demographics, this isn’t a recipe for victory. They can still make gains in midterms (like 2010) and other low-turnout or low-visibility elections. But they are going to have a very hard time taking the Presidency back unless there are real and substantial changes. That’s why they are attempting to push an Electoral College rigging scheme: they know they have no real chance of winning a fair Presidential election any time soon.

        The 2012 election demonstrated that the Republicans are so out of touch with the American mainstream that they can’t take back the White House even when the Democratic incumbent is saddled with a bad economy.

        • Murc says:

          I seriously hope you are right.

        • Davis X. Machina says:

          Color me skeptical.

          The Tories ran in 2010 on a platform of doing things the electorate knew would only make the present situation worse, because the lion’s share of the electorate had watched them do those very things within relatively recent memory, and in 1997 had tossed them for it, giving Labour a 180-seat majority.

          They needed Clegg to boost them up to where they could jimmy the window, but they got back into Number 10.

          So, yeah, all you have to do really is wait.

          • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

            What Labour did in government and what Brown did as PM (and as a candidate) had much to do with this dynamic, too (just saying).

            Incidentally, where’s Daragh–who always and forever defended the LibDems–these days? Haven’t seen him in these threads in an age.

        • Malaclypse says:

          As things currently stand, the Republicans can’t get anyone except older white men and older married white women to vote for them. With rapidly changing demographics, this isn’t a recipe for victory.

          With a rapidly dying Voting Rights Act, this is painful, painful irony.

        • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

          The GOP won 47% of the vote in last year’s presidential election. And they came close enough to winning a plurality of the Congressional tally that gerrymandering got them a majority. Thirty of fifty governors are Republicans. Anyone who believes this is a party that cannot win future national elections (or is in any immediate danger of becoming such a party) is fooling him or herself…and speeding the GOP’s revival. I said this in 2009 when we started hearing nonsense about the impending doom of the GOP. I’m shocked that so many Dems seem to have forgotten 2010 so quickly.

          • Origami Isopod says:

            Warnings of the GOP’s impending doom have been floating around since (at least) the ’80s.

            They have gerrymandering, the mainstream media, SCOTUS, and a piss-poor educational system going for them. They’re not going anywhere in the short term.

            • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

              Our sclerotic two-party system (bolstered by the many features of our electoral system, essential and otherwise, that favor it) make it virtually impossible for either of the major parties to truly lose its viability.

              Yet both parties, at least in recent decades, have tended to greet short-term successes with bold, delusional predictions of permanent majorities.

          • djw says:

            Anyone who believes this is a party that cannot win future national elections (or is in any immediate danger of becoming such a party) is fooling him or herself…

            Absolutely agree.

            and speeding the GOP’s revival.

            I’m afraid can’t piece together your proposed causal chain here. Some people who read blogs holding this erroneous belief is surely very unlikely to have any effect on reality whatsoever. I suppose if this notion were to become widespread amongst actual Democratic politicians, and they decided to not try very hard as a result, but that doesn’t seem plausible at all in a post-Martha Coakley world.

            • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

              My “causal chain” involves citizens who might be moved to vote, donate, or work for Democratic candidates out of fear of the GOP who might be less moved to do so to the extent that they believe that the GOP is a spent force. Like it or not, fear of the Republicans motivates an awful lot of action on the “left” in the U.S. these days.

              And I’d point out that the 2010 midterms already took place in a post-Martha Coakley world.

              • djw says:

                Well, yes, and that result was the product of long-standing voting behavior patterns, not a specific, erroneous belief about the GOP’s electability. That sort of belief is only likely to be formulated by a kind of moderate to high information voter; not the sort who is likely to stay home in the midterm elections.

                And midterm elections are hardly the point here anyway, as the notion that the GOP is dead in the water in presidential elections is very different from, and absolutely doesn’t suggest, they’re dead in the water in any particular Senatorial or congressional race.

        • SamR says:

          I wouldn’t say “can’t take back” I’d say “find it extremely difficult to take back.”

          GOP wins in 2012 if economy is worse than it was (unemployment 9%, for example), if the last 2 debates are pretty similar to the first one, and maybe if they nominate a candidate who doesn’t embody the worst excesses of Wall Street (though I’m not sure anyone in that field was better…Huckabee maybe?).

      • xxy says:

        Like most of the under-30 crowd I was a teenager and then a young adult during the Bush Administration. That just happened to be the time when I started paying attention to and forming my politics (9/11 also played a big part in that). I don’t think I and many of my peers will ever forget the soul-crushing combination of incompetence, malice, and general disregard for human life that was characteristic of the W presidency. I’d bet fewer will forget the Iraq War.

        That being said…I don’t think that will stop Republicans from gaining power. Our voting segment is runaway Democratic but it’s just one of many voting segments. Turnout is low, apathy and cynicism are widespread. Republicans also have a lot of institutional advantages, and being the party of the rich means they’ll always have enough money to influence people.

        Then again I was surprised by the margin with which Obama won in 2012. If the GOP doesn’t change (and I don’t think they will – they snubbed Christie for CPAC but invited Sarah Palin?!) and the internet is as transformative as I think it is (a pet theory of mind, so probably wrong) I could easily see the GOP being crushed in 2016 no matter what state the economy is in.

        I’d give the GOP the 2014 elections, because it’s pretty shocking how little anyone cares to vote for anything but President. The upcoming mayoral race will probably get under 30% turnout, and this is the second largest city in the country.

  6. Eggomaniac says:

    I think you’re giving these morons and nutcases way too much credit.

  7. sharculese says:

    although Paul may have had his own reasons

    He likes being a Senator from Kentucky, but also realizes the monetary value his father’s verbiage extracts from the rubes?

  8. Frank in midtown says:

    “who wants to hear unpleasant things?” Have you actually listened to them? They love hearing unpleasant things. The unpleasant things provide rationalization and cover for the ugly truth about their feelings, their fears, and their hate.

    • Sly says:

      “Unpleasant things” has a different meaning for reactionaries. Perceived persecution foments solidarity among the persecuted, so conservatives like hearing about all the manifold ways in which the White Man is being kept down. Reactionary leaders especially like this stuff, because they have an uncanny knack for monetizing the apocalypse in ways that must make End Times hucksters jealous with rage. Harold Camping or the Millerites have nothing on Rush Limbaugh and Fox News.

      But in this context, the “unpleasant thing” that conservatives don’t want to hear is the fact that they’re being lied to, because bullshit is all they have. Bullshit is what keeps their world intact and absolves them of their external obligations. It’s their faith and, like Job, will cling to it despite the actual abuse perpetuated against them. And Conservative Media have no incentive to tell them the truth (other than their consciences… HAH!), because money and influence flows from bullshit.

    • DrDick says:

      I think there are two factors here that are linked to the closed information circuit of conservatives. The first of this is that they need the fear and outrage to feed their zealotry. If they did not feel constantly oppressed and threatened, they would not be able to mobilize effectively. The second is the need to convince themselves that they really are the majority and that this is a center right country (despite all evidence pointing the opposite direction).

  9. Jewish Steel says:

    so conservatives like hearing about all the manifold ways in which the White Man is being kept down

    Oh, lord! Do they ever. My boss, my father, any white dude over fifty here in the non-urban Midwest. It’s like porn. Don’t get them started.

  10. James E. Powell says:

    These right-wing Republican battles over things the vast majority of Americans neither know nor care about serve as markers for “whose with us and whose against us” when it comes to status within the party. It isn’t about presidential nominees, though it becomes baggage for whoever gets the nomination. The particular policy or nomination or whatever that is being decided is almost irrelevant.

    It’s a battle cry. Remember the Schiavo!

    • Kurzleg says:

      As LosGatosCA mentions above, Hagel is seen as a turncoat, which feeds into the the “with us/against us” nature of his confirmation. The guy questioned the Iraq War and endorsed Obama. How can GOP senators confirm a guy like that?

  11. Data Tutashkhia says:

    Eh, even a dead frog will convulse from an electric shock, and Hegel is a guy who, among other things, proposed to reduce and eventually eliminate the nuclear weapons. No point over-analyzing this.

  12. TT says:

    ….you have to respect a movement so certain of itself that it feels no need to bother with inconvenient aspects of reality.

    No, you don’t.

  13. arguingwithsignposts says:

    I don’t think the “rank-and-file” on the right really gave a shit about Hegel. This is all Beltway kabuki.

  14. Shakezula says:

    Why? I’ll tell you why.

    The GOP (or Conservative movement or whatever they want to call themselves) is 51% stupid and 49% wicked.

    Or maybe I have the numbers backwards.

    Also too:

    Demand better from the journalists whose work you patronize, or remain at an information disadvantage relative to consumers of a “mainstream media” that is regularly outperforming conservative journalists.

    Oh. Please. It takes towering amounts of idiocy or dishonesty to call something like Shapiro a journalist.

    Yeah, yeah. I know that’s what he thinks he is. Maybe it is on his business cards. But if I borrow a lab coat and stethoscope from one of my doctor pals, I can insist I’m a neurosurgeon until I’m taken away to a quiet room (or arrested) and I still won’t be a damn neurosurgeon.

  15. actor212 says:

    Really? Living in a bubble means living in just your own noise and filth?

    Who knew? No one could have forseen yadayadayada…

  16. Brautigan says:

    What this analysis ignores is the opportunity the Hagel nomination presented to bang the BENGHAZI!! drum a bit longer and louder.

  17. Shakezula says:

    And now the conservative “journalists” are admitting that the White House didn’t threaten to Vince Foster Woodward after all. Too bad, I was hoping for full scale Congressional hearings.

    What’s the opposite of a learning Curve? A Line? A Point?

  18. Anon says:

    “well constructed adherence to the editorial line of of the Commentary-National Review-Weekly Standard Axis leads to upward mobility, with the Free Bacon and the Daily Tucker provide entry points into the machine”. Likewise, adherence to the editorial line of the Washington Post – New Republic – Billy Keller Funny Pages Axis is a prerequisite for their mainstream counterparts. A journalist who doesn’t say nice things about “intervention”(remember when that was just called ‘war’?) or just keep quiet is not gonna go the distance at Sulzberger’s Shitheads.

  19. [...] but admits he’s never had one. And yet another Republican insists Todd Akin was right. •LGM wonders why Republicans fought so hard against Chuck Hagel’s appointment as SecDef. •Since I [...]

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