Frank Rich on the National Circus: Hagel Was Bad; His Inquisitors Were Worse

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 31: Former U.S. Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE) testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing to become the next secretary of defense on Capitol Hill January 31, 2013 in Washington, DC. President Barack Obama nominated Hagel, a controversial choice as Hagel opposed former President George W. Bush and his own party on the Iraq War and upset liberals with his criticism of a gay ambassador, for which he later apologized. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Photo: Alex Wong/2013 Getty Images

Every week, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich talks with assistant editor Eric Benson about the biggest stories in politics and culture. This week: Chuck Hagel’s confirmation hearing, the latest Washington “gang,” and a farewell to the original Mama Grizzly.

­­­Chuck Hagel, President Obama’s nominee for Defense secretary, had a rather rough seven-and-a-half-hour grilling at the hands of the Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday. Do you think his lackluster performance will damage his chances of confirmation? And what do you think of Obama’s choice of Hagel? 
The undercaffeinated Hagel was clearly over-rehearsed into a near stupor by his White House handlers. He was hardly impressive. But compared to his inquisitors, he was Churchill. As Dave Weigel pointed out in Slate, the new Senator from the Texas tea party, Ted Cruz, misrepresented an Al-Jazeera clip to slur Hagel as an anti-Semite. (A visitor from outer space listening to the committee’s priorities would have thought Americans are dying in a war in Israel, not Afghanistan.) And then there’s John McCain, having another temper tantrum and branding Hagel as being on the “wrong side” of history because he opposed the Iraq “surge.” In 2009, I wrote a piece cataloguing McCain’s lethal blunders about Iraq. Just a short list would include his pimping for the fictitious Bush-Cheney rationale for the war (even linking Iraq to the post-9/11 Washington anthrax attacks), asserting that the Sunnis and Shiites would “probably get along,” and declaring that we’d win the war “easily.” McCain was not only on the wrong side of history; history will hold him responsible for being a primary enabler of one of the most costly foreign debacles — in blood, treasure, and American credibility — in our history. So what if Hagel opposed the surge? The surge did not “win” the war as McCain would now have us believe; all the surge did was provide the cover that enabled us to pull out of the Iraq fiasco with some dignity intact and to spare Iraq hawks like McCain more humiliation. Hagel’s judgment on that war was far superior to most in his party, including McCain, and superior to that of some Democrats as well (including Hillary Clinton). I don’t agree with Hagel on everything, but I think he’s a good, hardheaded choice to run the Pentagon for Obama. Given that the Democrats remain in control of the Senate, it’s hard to imagine that his weak performance in confronting the bombastic bullying of McCain and his Sancho Panza, Lindsey Graham, will derail his nomination. 

Earlier this week, a “gang” of eight senators unveiled a bipartisan immigration reform package that would give 11 million undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship. Senate gangs have a history of talking about bipartisanship and getting nothing done. Will this latest gang be more successful?
Another McCain embarrassment is looming. Though he’s a leader of this “gang” and is now endorsing immigration reform after arguing in favor of a Mexican border fence in his last Senate run in Arizona, his own party is giving him the finger. Despite all the post-election GOP hand-wringing about how it must start making nice to Hispanics or die, its radical right (including the aforementioned Cruz of Texas) sees reform as “amnesty” and is resisting it. Republicans apparently hope that if Marco Rubio hogs enough airtime on the Sunday shows that will be all it will take to reverse their demographic fate with the growing Latino electorate. Karl Rove even argued this week in his Wall Street Journal column that the GOP needn’t worry about demographics, and re-crunches some of his always-fungible numbers to say that Romney actually did better than anyone thought among Hispanics. There may be no “Dream Act” of immigration reform coming out of Congress, but surely the continued Republican acts of self-immolation on the issue are a political dream come true for the Democrats.

A new Washington Post-ABC poll found that 60 percent of Americans have a favorable impression of the president, his best rating since his first year in office. But the Commerce Department reported that the economy contracted .1 percent in the fourth quarter of last year, undermining the administration’s claims of a recovery. As Obama tries to enact his second-term agenda, which number will be more important?
The most important number may be the uptick in new jobs announced by the Labor Department at week’s end — including the revised numbers showing that job growth was more than originally thought in the last quarter of 2012. The economy remains iffy, and so is public approval of Obama’s handling of it (despite his overall popularity). But voters still invest more hopes in his economic stewardship than a Republican Congress that imagines that the road to recovery includes a pit stop during which it shuts the federal government down.

Sarah Palin parted ways with Fox News on Monday after a tumultuous three-year run. Is this the end for the Queen of the Mama Grizzlies? And what does it mean for Fox News, which is currently suffering its worst prime-time ratings in twelve years?
Palin has been done ever since her “blood libel” video responding to the Tucson massacre that maimed Gabby Giffords. Unfortunately for her party and the country, her brand of gun-toting, racially charged right-wing politics lives on. And Fox News remains far and away the most successful cable news network even with its ratings down. It clearly needs new and younger blood in prime time, but you can never underestimate Roger Ailes as a ruthless showman who will do what it takes to remain on top no matter what. Indeed, canning Palin shows that he hasn’t lost a step. He does not let ideology or sentimentality stand in the way of giving a flop act the hook.

Fox News competitor CNN had a more dramatic shake-up, cutting ties with political odd-couple James Carville and Mary Matalin, conservative poobah Bill Bennett, RedState blog founder Erick Erickson, and Democratic strategist Maria Cardona. The scuttlebutt says that this begins the new chief Jeff Zucker’s attempt to clean house and showcase younger talent. Is it a smart move? And can CNN be saved?
We have to hope that CNN can be saved because it actually has the international  journalistic resources to be a great television news organization even as it is mired in an identity crisis and programming often so dull that liberals might prefer to watch Fox, if only to stay awake. We’ll have to wait and see what the big changes are at CNN. Getting rid of some played-out bloviators — an example all networks might profitably follow — is a worthy but minor step, roughly as significant as brushing off a little lint from a threadbare suit. And wildly overdue: Carville and Matalin were more substantive in their appearance in Maker’s Mark commercials than on CNN during election season.

Frank Rich: Hagel Better Than His Inquisitors