The Hagel nomination fight will have significant effects, but they won't come in America's national security policy. As much as any president in recent memory, Barack Obama has made sure the fundamental direction and specific tactical choices come straight from his desk. His State of the Union speech this week doubled down on his fundamental priorities -- aggressive, targeted counterterrorism; reducing the role and threat of nuclear weapons; using engagement as a primary tool to secure American interests -- all of which were in place long before Defense Secretary Hagel was a twinkle in anyone's eye.
The fight -- as long as it plays out in elite media and on C-SPAN, and is dwarfed nationally by limping cruise ships and the Pope -- is also unlikely to have any serious effect on public opinion about national security policy. As I've argued elsewhere, the opinions that have been dubbed "controversial" when attributed to Hagel are, it turns out, quite firmly held among the public: the need to rein in Pentagon waste, support for negotiations before military action to constrain Iran's nuclear program, and the desire for the United States to be a leader for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
Nonetheless, this tempest-in-the-Beltway may reverberate in American politics for years to come. Here's why:
It could shift the electoral map. Senator Carl Levin -- the fifth-most senior U.S. senator and longtime chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee -- has waged a draining struggle for comity on that committee in recent years, negotiating painstaking deals with Senator John McCain to report out bipartisan defense authorization bills. The SASC has passed such legislation for 51 years running now. By contrast, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has passed only one authorization bill in the last seven years.
Meanwhile, Levin raised only $13,000 in the last quarter of 2012, and some wonder whether he will run again in 2014, at which time he will be 80 years old. No one thinks he would have trouble winning if he wanted, but the ugly back-and-forth with Senator Jim Inhofe, McCain's replacement as ranking member, and Levin's evident frustration with Inhofe's demands for unprecedented levels of documentation from Hagel, cannot have strengthened his desire to stay on.
If Levin goes, he sets in motion two subtle but important shifts in the political landscape. Levin is the youngest of the trio who lead Michigan's congressional delegation -- and Michigan Democratic politics. Levin, his brother Congressman Sander Levin, and Congressman John Dingell, the longest-serving House member, all solidified their hold on Michigan politics decades ago. A talented set of much younger pols is waiting in the wings -- but most lack statewide name recognition and all lack national experience. With Michigan's Democratic Party badly bruised by its 2012 labor referendum loss, and the GOP governor's successful move to pass a right-to-work law, the ugly Hagel fight could be the butterfly that winds up changing a significant piece of the 2016 electoral map.
The SASC might get more aggressive. Next in line for Levin's committee chairmanship would be Senator Jack Reed, a West Point graduate and retired Army Ranger. Whereas Levin worked for years to build credibility and trust on military issues, Reed can walk right in -- or jump, since he was also a paratrooper. Levin rose through the committee during the Democrats' years in the wilderness as the party not trusted on national security. By contrast, Reed's time on the committee has been marked by the searing Iraq vote and conflict, and the political consequences which -- as the Hagel hearings showed -- are still playing out. (Both Levin and Reed voted against authorizing the use of force in Iraq.)* Inhofe has already demonstrated his distaste for committee bonhomie; Reed is a quiet man but a firmly independent one. Neither man seems likely to continue the tradition, described by a former SASC staffer, of putting "the institution [the committee] ahead of party or politics." Only one-third of SASC members were in the Senate for the Iraq vote. With McCain out of the chair, and even more so if Levin is gone, the Hagel hearing seems likely to have been a preview of how the committee functions in the future, rather than an aberration.
*Correction: Originally, this sentence incorrectly stated that Sen. Levin voted for the authorization.