On foreign policy, former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel is one of the good guys: knowledgeable, thoughtful, responsible, and non-ideological. He's shown a consistent willingness to question his party's verities. He courageously challenged the Bush administration's Iraq war policies, he opposed the nomination of ultra neo-con John Bolton as ambassador to the United Nations, he's opposed trigger-happiness over Iran, and he's even been willing to question the most sacred cow of all: blind U.S. support of Israel, come what may.
He's also the wrong choice for defense secretary.
1. He's a Republican
Nominating Hagel for SecDef sends the world a simple message: even Democrats don't really think Democrats are capable of running the Defense Department. Three of the last four secretaries of defense have been Republicans -- and two of the three were appointed by Democrats. If President Obama nominates Chuck Hagel, Republicans will be four for five.
Some argue that by appointing his second Republican secretary of defense, President Obama will be making a gracious bipartisan gesture, one that will buy him respect and -- perhaps -- greater cooperation from Republicans in Congress. But that's wishful thinking. The current crop of Republicans on the Hill are already reasonably cooperative on defense issues, and they've made it amply clear that they're not interested in cooperating with the Obama administration on non-defense matters. Nominating Chuck Hagel as SecDef won't change that.
All nominating Hagel will do is needlessly undermine Democratic efforts to eliminate the so-called "national security deficit." Since Vietnam, the Republican Party has been viewed by voters as the most-trusted party on defense issues. Democrats have fought hard to change that, and in the last few years, they've finally seen some success: as Matt Bennett and Jeremy Rosner recently noted, voters this November said they trusted Obama and Romney equally on national security, and gave Obama a 12 point edge on "international affairs."
But nominating Hagel risks ceding much of the ground Democrats fought so hard to gain. A Hagel nomination will suggest to voters that when it comes to defense, even President Obama has a sneaking suspicion that Republicans are better than Democrats. Is that really a smart message for the president to send?
2. He's a conservative Republican
Lest we forget, Chuck Hagel's general reasonableness on foreign policy doesn't mean he's a closet Democrat. He's not. He's anti-abortion, anti-gay rights, and anti-gun control. His record on immigration issues is not bad, but he's iffy on civil rights issues and criminal justice issues, opposed to affirmative action, generally hostile to Democratic party positions on taxes, and his record on environmental issues is dismal. And no one should assume his record on domestic issues is irrelevant to his potential performance as defense secretary. Will a man who supported a ban on abortions performed on military bases be a good steward for military women and female dependents? Will a man who has voted against anti-discrimination measures designed to protect gays and lesbians be able to support gay and lesbian service members?
3. There are plenty of qualified Democrats
Is the Democratic bench really so shallow that Obama needs to nominate a conservative Republican as secretary of defense? That's an easy one: no. There are lots of well-qualified Democrats who'd just love to be SecDef.
To name a few, there's Rhode Island Senator Jack Reed, a former Army Ranger who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee. There's Washington state Congressman Adam Smith, the ranking Democratic member of the House Armed Services Committee. There's Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, a decorated Vietnam veteran and chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. There's Ash Carter, who's currently serving as deputy secretary of defense.
And that's just the middle-aged white guys.
4. How about a woman, Mr. President?
Seriously, in the year 2012, when an African American man has become president, and women and African Americans have served as secretary of state and as national security advisor, President Obama can't think of anyone except a white, male Republican who's qualified to be secretary of defense? Susan Rice, once considered a strong candidate for secretary of state, has been thrown overboard already. With a man -- perhaps Kerry -- expected to be nominated to head the State Department, wouldn't it be nice for President Obama to nominate the nation's first female secretary of defense?
And what do you know -- there's even a popular, exceptionally qualified woman already out there: Michèle Flournoy. Full disclosure: I worked for Flournoy from 2009-2011. But I think that makes me more, not less, qualified to sing her praises. I didn't know her well when I started working for her in April 2009, but by the time I left more than two years later, I had come to respect her enormously.
They say "no man is a hero to his valet," but Flournoy was a heroine for virtually everyone on her staff, which ought to count for something. She's calm, honest, and knows the Defense Department inside out, which would let her get off to a running start. She's served in the defense departments of two administrations, and spent her time outside government in defense-related think tanks. She's married to a retired Navy officer, and has a first-hand understanding of how military life affects families and servicemembers. She's earned the respect of the military's old boy network, and the devotion of the young women and men committed to making the Defense Department a better institution for everyone.
And, Mr. President? She's even a Democrat.