National Security

The Price of Hagel

Could this nomination fight change the electoral map in 2016?

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.

This is perhaps less a catastrophe than it might seem. Observers from both parties, including longtime Senate and Pentagon staffers, have commented for years that congressional coziness has been an obstacle to serious reform of Pentagon procurement, healthcare, and contracting -- and that Congress has too-often blocked the Pentagon's own attempts at reform. Who wouldn't love to see the aggression Senator Ted Cruz turned on Hagel aimed at the creators of the fighter jet whose pilots pass out in flight, or the amphibious vehicle whose doors don't seal? Or a serious policy debate over global engagement versus offshore balancing, with Reed and Utah libertarian Senator Mike Lee leading the sides?

Filibuster reform will stall. Earlier this year, the Senate adopted a filibuster reform that seemed modest, but real. Hours for debate were shortened, workarounds added, and the ability to filibuster in absentia was removed, in principle. But the GOP's decision to force Hagel's nomination over the 60-vote threshold -- and not grant it on the first try -- has led to a reassessment. First, the new rules still left plenty of technicalities through which a 45-seat minority party can delay action as long as it likes. And second, as might have been expected the first time a minority party saw stopping a nomination to be to its advantage, Democrats and good government advocates cried foul.

Filibuster reform advocates have seized on the imbroglio to call on Senator Harry Reid to take up the issue again and push further. But, for the moment, this seems unlikely. If the nomination is allowed to proceed smoothly after recess, as McCain and others pledged on the floor last week, the memory of the delay will soon be overtaken by more pressing fights.* Instead of change, we will simply have gotten an unlovely Senate recess filled with 10 days of alleged Hagel quotes which, while unlikely to change any votes, can't be helping global perceptions of the seriousness of U.S. military power. Thus, filibuster reform becomes one more seemingly meaningful idea that wilts in the Capitol's hot air -- and takes a little bit more of our legislature's popular legitimacy with it.

The center of gravity may shift on foreign policy. The White House decision to nominate Hagel injected partisanship into a fight that has been, since 2009, a civil war within the Republican Party. But take the Democrats away and what you see is a free-fire zone with neoconservatives and their heirs on one side and libertarians and their sympathizers on the other. Mitt Romney's struggles to enunciate national security policies in the last election were in many ways a reflection of how withering this crossfire has gotten. It may be costing the GOP support as younger veterans leave the party; it is certainly costing the country intelligent and thoughtful debate when you have three-star general and former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft saying of himself and Hagel:

We haven't moved; the Republican Party has moved....I have been a lifelong Republican and I hold to what are my own beliefs, which happen to be core Republican beliefs, but many in the party have taken a different course.

Hagel is no liberal, and neither are many of the dozens of retired generals, admirals, and ambassadors who spoke out in favor of his nomination. (Indeed, not every Democrat is thrilled at the flood of realists into the party's ranks -- but that day of reckoning will be put off as long as the GOP conflict continues.)

If Hagel is confirmed, as seems likely, will the realists resurge? Will Senators Jack Reed, Mark Begich, and Lisa Murkowski create a new center on national security? Might Hagel, or one of his GOP Senate supporters, be the 21st century Republican equivalent of Henry "Scoop" Jackson, the Democrat and vigorous Cold Warrior who did as much as any individual to create bipartisan foreign policy, while leaving great bitterness within his own party? If so, Hagel would do our broken politics a considerable service. If not, one wonders what it will take for that center to re-emerge -- and whether instead the Republicans who belong in it by temperament will follow Hagel's exodus.

*Correction: This sentence originally stated that filibuster reform would likely shorten post-cloture debate on Hagel's nomination. In fact, the new rules limiting debate do not apply to votes to confirm Cabinet nominations.

Alex Wong/Getty Images


House of Cards Is a House of Cards

Why can't Americans do political intrigue like the Brits?

In Britain's 1990 House of Cards, the Machiavellian minister, Francis Urquhart, is referred to as ‘FU' by those around him. In the American adaptation, released this month in a 13-part series available only on Netflix, the congressman's name is Francis Underwood. Same initials, but you never hear them. The inside joke has gone.

Much more had changed in the Netflix version. The U.S. production wasn't just longer. Like much of American political drama, it was bigger and glosser than its British counterpart. The stakes were higher, the story lines more implausible, the characters at times unrecognizable. (Has anyone ever seen a congressional wife as glamorous as Mrs. Underwood? Or, for that matter, an NGO office Anna Wintour would be comfortable holding meetings in?)

Spacey's performance as Underwood lacked the rapier-like realism of Ian Richardson's Urquhart. It wasn't just Spacey's hit-or-miss Southern drawl that was unrealistic, it was his politics too. Would any politician really care about pushing an expensive education bill through the House? A more likely issue would have been defense -- or gambling.

House of Cards isn't the first British production to be heavily made over for American audiences. Fans of the BBC series State of Play, which begins with a House of Commons researcher being pushed to her death on the London Underground, might wonder at the hyperbolic script in the Russell Crowe/Ben Affleck movie adaption. ("Billions of dollars. That's wrath of God money.")

But plausible and watchable don't always mean the same thing. Even fans of original U.S. programming like Scandal24, or Political Animals realize we are not watching anything close to an accurate representation of political intrigue. And as for the West Wing, yes there was oodles of intrigue but very little of it political.

So why is American so bad at this game? The difference begins at the source. Compare London's Prime Minister's Question Time to any debate on Washington's Senate or House floors and you'll immediately understand the difference in style. Britain produces politicians who are at ease making inside jokes and classical references (just look at these recent horsemeat scandal jokes by MPs). Their language is articulate, produced by an education that prizes debate. In London, speeches are more likely to be made than read and sarcasm is a plus. Politicians see themselves as entertainers. (Exhibit A: London Mayor Boris Johnson.) The entertainment takes place in Westminster. Screenwriters just have to adapt what they hear.

There is also a difference in substance based on reality. Take a look back at the headlines and you'll see that betrayal at the highest level took place in the Cold War with Kim Philby, Guy Burges, Donald Maclean, and Anthony Blunt (the Queen's curator) all recruited by the Soviets while at Cambridge.

In the 1960s and 70s, ministers John Profumo and Anthony Lambton had to resign their seats after encounters with prostitutes. More recently, the phone-hacking scandals have exposed a cozy world of networking between politics and media that includes Prime Minister David Cameron, Rupert Murdoch's chief aide Rebekah Brooks, and PR guru and Murdoch son-in-law Matthew Freud (yes, the grandson of Sigmund). Even House of Cards -- the British version -- was based on a three-volume novel written by Michael Dobbs, an advisor to Margaret Thatcher before becoming chairman of the Conservative Party.

Real and fictional intrigue in the United Kingdom tends to be about power based on a class system where relationships are made at boarding school or at Oxford and Cambridge. In England, who you know can be far more useful than how much money you have.

When, for instance, did Rebekah Brooks become a true insider? When Rupert Murdoch promoted her or when she married an old Etonian with an estate close to the Cameron's? Corridors of power don't just run through Westminster but in large country houses that have belonged to the same families for generations.

The Yanks, once again, are different. In the absence of an impenetrable establishment, fictional intrigue in the United States almost invariably revolves around money. Money can buy anything, including the presidency (Scandal). The political landscape changes frequently, but money is always there. The money trail starts in Hollywood, which explains the presence of car chases, multiple shootings, and often the involvement of the entire military in political dramas.

Sometimes there are exceptions to the brashness. See Damages, season 4, which revolved around a private contractor's (John Goodman) role in the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan. The story line was inspired by recent headlines, and Goodman's portrayal of a patriotic, American military capitalist was extraordinary. The script was tight and lacked hysteria. This has been the one to beat. Unsurprisingly the show wasn't a hit. Maybe it was too subtle for a national palate dulled by Technicolor and Surround Sound.

The Hollywood myth of Washington is that it's a glamorous place. But real life is never glamorous. The Washington of C-Span -- the authentic Washington -- does not sell a lot of popcorn. So filmmakers create a fairy-tale capital, on the premise that there's a life here you suspect but don't see. It's a city of secrets and lies, where elections are bought or rigged and betrayal is an everyday activity. There is no democracy here. There's not much reality either.

Francis Underwood might have been enraged not to have been made secretary of state but in real life he'd have been given something else -- some pork to take home to his district or a lesser cabinet-level post -- and moved on.

In real life, would Underwood have had a driver? Recent headlines from London have proved that the better story would have existed if he didn't. Ten years ago, minister Chris Huhne persuaded (coerced?) his wife to perjure herself and take his points on a speeding ticket for going 69 mph in a 50 mph speed zone. The case is currently gripping Britain. Because of one traffic violation, Huhne's political career is over and he and his now ex-wife face prison time.

Over in Denmark, the traffic stakes are even smaller. In Borgen, fictional Danish Prime Minister Birgitte Nyborg bikes to work, leaving behind a messy house, two kids (one a troubled teen), and a dissatisfied husband. At the office she deals with the same problems her fictional counterparts in London and Washington are facing: an unwanted war, a difficult media, rich and powerful corporate bosses, a tanking economy, and disloyalty in the ranks. There are no frills in this production, where coffee and pastries play a prominent role. But there's an authenticity here that Underwood's implausible rib-eating lifestyle completely lacks.

To the extent that Americans compete in the political humor business, it's only because of -- you guessed it -- more British knockoffs. But it's hard to export the jokes. One comedy writer, in this case a Scotsman, has successfully made power funny on both sides of the Atlantic. Armando Iannucci is the creator of both the British The Thick of It and HBO's Veep. Those of you who haven't seen The Thick of It might remember Ianucci's 2009 film based on the series In the Loop. (In any case, episodes are now available on Hulu.) Veep, a half-hour comedy show about a female vice president, played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus of Seinfeld fame, is good but not great. The Thick of It, however, is brilliant. Its scope is broader -- the show spans all English political parties, ministers and civil servants -- yet its writing is tighter, subtler, more mature. Compare the two scenes below: Where Veep uses a sledgehammer, The Thick of It employs more precise tools.


"I was trying to use Jonah for intelligence."

"That's like trying to use a croissant as a fucking dildo. No, no, no, no, let me be more clear. It doesn't do the job. And it makes a fucking mess."

The Thick of It

"You're wanted at Downing Street ASAFP."

"F meaning..."

"Feasibly I should imagine."

Netflix reportedly spent $100 million making the dramatic House of Cards. But the funniest and most authentic American political comedy, Battleground, is on Hulu, which picked it up after Fox passed. Battleground is the "mockumentary" story of an election to the U.S. Senate in Wisconsin. The star lies in third place. There's no money in the production or the election. No spoilers as to the outcome here. But if you want American political authenticity, this is the one to watch.

Melinda Sue Gordon