By Debra J. Saunders
“Never make an enemy by accident,” housemaid Anna Bates warned her husband in the third season premiere of “Downton Abbey” Sunday night. That’s what the housemaid’s mother always told her.
If his mother ever gave him the same advice, former GOP Sen. Chuck Hagel — now President Barack Obama’s pick to serve as secretary of defense — seems to have ignored it.
Biographically, the former U.S. senator from Nebraska and decorated Vietnam War hero makes a great choice. As the president noted, “he’d be the first person of enlisted rank to serve as secretary of defense, one of the few secretaries who have been wounded in war and the first Vietnam veteran to lead the department.”
But temperamentally, not so much. Though Obama lauded Hagel for representing “the bipartisan tradition we need more of in Washington,” I think that what the president really meant is that Hagel is his favorite kind of Republican, the self-loathing kind.
Make that: the kind whom Democrats like because Republicans do not.
Hagel alienated some on the right when he turned against the Iraq War, for which he had voted in 2002. A lot of people changed their minds about that war, but Hagel went so far as to say in 2007 that “of course” the Iraq War was about oil.
Hagel angered folks from both parties when he said during a 2006 interview, “The Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here.”
The Jewish lobby? Not the Israeli lobby? That’s why Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told CNN on Sunday that the Hagel pick was an “in-your-face nomination.”
Hagel’s opposition to sanctions against Iran led Bill Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, to warn that “nominating a person who is clearly soft on Iran would send exactly the wrong message to Tehran.”
The Washington Post, which endorsed Obama in 2012, editorialized that Hagel is the wrong choice because his “stated positions on critical issues, ranging from defense spending to Iran, fall well to the left” of the president’s first-term policies.
Some Democrats didn’t like the fact that Hagel opposed James Hormel’s appointment as ambassador to Luxembourg in 1998 on the grounds that Hormel was “openly, aggressively gay.” Last month, Hagel apologized for that remark. The apology did not mollify Barney Frank, an openly gay former member of Congress. Frank called Hagel “aggressively bigoted” last week.
On Monday, as he was angling to be the interim appointee to replace Sen. John Kerry when Kerry becomes secretary of state, Frank dialed back his opposition. It seems that “aggressively bigoted” talk is OK when it comes with someone who infuriates the right. “With the attack coming out of the right, I hope he gets confirmed,” Frank told The Boston Globe.
In Obama’s world, the most important qualification for secretary of defense might well be: bugging Republicans.
With the “fiscal cliff” fight over, you would think Obama would want to save his fire for the looming battle over the debt ceiling. To the contrary, in picking Hagel, Obama has shown that he prefers to throw lighted matches at the right.
The president has chosen to make more enemies, and it’s no accident.
Debra J. Saunders is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org