By Dana Milbank
WASHINGTON — If this is how Jim Inhofe treats his friends, one shudders to think what he does to his enemies.
“I have known Sen. Kerry for many years and consider him a friend,” the Republican senator from Oklahoma said last week on the occasion of the Senate’s vote to confirm Inhofe’s dear friend John Kerry as secretary of state. “I again state that I consider him a friend,” Inhofe added.
Inhofe rewarded this friendship by being one of only three senators to vote against Kerry’s confirmation on Tuesday.
On Thursday, Inhofe had the chance to greet another old friend, former Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican nominated to be President Obama’s defense secretary. “You and I are very good friends,” Inhofe informed Hagel at the confirmation hearing.
Inhofe further informed his friend Hagel that his “record is deeply troubling and out of the mainstream,” and that Hagel believes in “appeasing our adversaries while shunning our friends.” Inhofe then recited a poem about the ills of appeasement.
Inhofe values his friendship with Hagel so much, in fact, that he decided to vote against his confirmation even before listening to his testimony.
Why? “He’s just, in my opinion, wrong on the issues in the Middle East,” Inhofe told Fox News just before the confirmation hearing. “But he’s right in line, I might say, with President Obama.”
Opposing the nominee for holding views consistent with those of the man who nominated him: That’s what friends are for?
The problem is this isn’t just a case of one man’s difficulty with friendship. Inhofe is the new ranking Republican member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and he seems intent to use this prominent perch to wage all-out war on the president.
This is significant because when it comes to the military, lawmakers have historically been able to overcome partisan differences for the good of the country. At the start of Hagel’s confirmation hearing, two revered former senators who were members of the committee, Democrat Sam Nunn and Republican John Warner, praised that tradition in their speeches urging Hagel’s confirmation.
Nunn hailed the committee for its bipartisan work “even during contentious times.” Warner told the panel’s new members that “you will carry with you, for the rest of your life, the recollections of the work that you’ve done for one of America’s most valued assets.”
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., in her turn to question Hagel, noted that “this committee needs to be bipartisan, and I hope that the new ranking member holds the same regard for that” as his predecessors.
But instead, Inhofe is leading Republicans to a position of gratuitous hostility. Following his statement, Republicans on the panel signaled Thursday that they would vote, along party lines, against Hagel, simply because he held views, shared by the president, with which they disagreed.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., informed his “old friend” Hagel that they have “fundamental disagreements” on matters of policy. He then proceeded to hector Hagel at length about his opposition to the “surge” in Iraq in 2007: “Do you stand by that? … Were you correct? … The committee deserves your judgment. … I want to know if you were right or wrong. … Yes or no? Are you going to answer the question?”
I think McCain was right to support the surge and Hagel was wrong to oppose it. But Obama also opposed the surge — and he was elected president, twice. McCain may have “fundamental disagreements” with Obama, but he shouldn’t begrudge the president filling his Cabinet with people who share his policy judgments.
Inhofe, likewise, objected to his “friend” Kerry’s confirmation as secretary of state because he has “been a strong advocate for U.S. action on climate change” (as has Obama) and supported the New START Treaty with Russia (as did Obama).
At Hagel’s confirmation, similarly, Inhofe said he would oppose the nominee because he would “be a staunch advocate for the continuation of the misguided policies of the president’s first term.”
He used most of his questioning time to pester Hagel about past votes and to provoke him with insinuation. “Why do you think that the Iranian Foreign Ministry so strongly supports your nomination to be the secretary of defense?” he inquired.
Later, Inhofe took another turn at the microphone to say he “strongly disagreed” with Hagel’s characterization of Obama as a supporter of Israel. “I know he is not up for confirmation,” Inhofe admitted. “You are.”
That’s true: Obama is not up for confirmation. Inhofe ought to stop acting as if he were.
Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist. His email address is email@example.com.