What The Hagel Fiasco Told Us About The Press

Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

HagelChuck Hagel's anticlimactic Senate confirmation to become the nation's next Secretary of Defense, passed by a vote of 58 to 41, stood in sharp contrast to the frenzied weeks of partisan fighting, and the often breathless media coverage that surrounded the unprecedented battle over President Obama's pick.

The Washington Post this week tallied up a scorecard to determine whether the furious Republican effort had been worth it. Republicans used up valuable political capital fighting a lost cause, but the Post claimed the party wouldn't suffer politically for its obstructionist ways. Indeed, for Republicans there wasn't "a whole lot of downside " in trying to derail Hagel.

Unfortunately, that's probably true. The Beltway press has made sure Republicans have routinely paid no price for their radical behavior, which means ugly stalling tactics will likely continue under Obama, as Republicans now try to grind the government to a halt on numerous fronts.

During the months-long Hagel debacle, in which the traditionally routine, bipartisan confirmation process was upended by Republicans, we learned some uncomfortable truths about the mainstream press and the right-wing media.

For instance we learned that, thanks to the Friends of Hamas debacle, conservative media sites continue to have much more in common with propaganda than they do journalism. We learned that even the piercing right-wing echo chamber, with conservative outlets working in concert with Republicans in Congress to amplify falsehoods, wasn't enough to sway the Hagel debate.

We learned that the hermetically sealed information bubble is still firmly intact. Reminiscent of the bubble that hyped the Mitt Romney "landslide" that never materialized last November, conservatives in the press assured followers for weeks that Hagel's nomination was doomed, that he'd soon be withdrawing his name, or he'd be rejected outright by angry Democrats.

We learned that non-starter crusades like the Hagel one are perfectly suited for the increasingly obsessive, phony outrage formula that so many right-wing outlets have adopted. (As blogger Charles Johnson noted on Twitter, the day Hagel was easily confirmed by the Senate, Breitbart.com's homepage featured no less than fourteen anti-Hagel headlines.) 

Conversely, what the right-wing media, along with Republicans, learned was that the Beltway press will give them a free, unobstructed path to attack, smear and obstruct, and then type it all up as news. They learned there's little risk involved in adopting radical, obstructionist ways.

They learned there's no downside in being tagged the loser of a high-profile confirmation battle, in part because the right-wing press is busy declaring victory. Their argument goes like this: Unlike previous Secretary of Defense nominees, Hagel didn't garner universal support in the Senate, and instead faced fiercely partisan opposition. Therefore he faced "historic" pushback and was "neutered." Therefore it was a win for the conservative movement. (Hagel's public approval rating fell 11 points! It's unclear what he's running for, though.)

The mere fact that partisans plotted to oppose Hagel meant that Hagel had lost. Or something.

In other words, witch hunts are the new normal. From the New York Times:

Republicans on Capitol Hill will not end with Mr. Hagel's confirmation. Republicans have already trained their sights on the next nominee they see as vulnerable: John O. Brennan, who is President Obama's pick to become director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

The truth is the whole Hagel confirmation often resembled a prolonged charade that rarely rose to the standard of serious opposition. It was a "debilitating, sometimes farcical and mainly unserious debate," as Bloomberg's Jeffery Goldberg put it.

Yet it was one that the press gladly legitimized for months with endlessly earnest updates. It was a confirmation fight where Hagel's opponents couldn't even decide why they were trying to block him. Alternately, the spectacle was about Iran. It was about Israel, or Benghazi, or Hagel's his lack of loyalty to the GOP or his personal finances, or nuclear weapons.

It turns out, the charade was about whatever a handful of Republican senators wanted the confirmation to be about on any given day, and the political press dutifully typed up the GOP's carousel of accusations, all the time wondering why Obama had decided to "pick a fight" over Hagel, and why he failed to see the Republicans' opposition coming.

The press took the attack campaign seriously despite the fact Hagel's former Republican colleagues had often praised him, toasting him as "one of the premier foreign policy voices." And they took seriously the right-wing media effort, even though Fox News had complained that under Bush, opposing cabinet selections was "petty," "mean spirited" and "obstructionist."

Did I mention the press often blamed Obama for the whole mess? He was guilty of picking a fight with Republicans... by wanting to have a lifelong Republican serve in his cabinet.

Just look at the language from a recent hand-wringing Politico report that tried to figure out why Obama would want to wage a battle with Republicans by nominating a Republican [emphasis added]:

The White House seems to have underestimated the intensity of the opposition that Hagel would run into in the Senate, despite aggressive efforts by pro-Israel activists to telegraph concerns about the former Nebraska senator's views on Mideast issues and "the Jewish lobby" -- a term he now says he regrets using.


The whole episode seems unnecessary, raising the question of why Hagel was selected in the first place instead of well-respected Defense Department veterans Michele Flournoy or Ashton Carter.

See, if the White House had simply been studying the political currents, the Hagel unpleasantness could have been avoided. According to Politico, it seemed obvious the GOP was going to mount the first filibuster in the history of the United States Senate to block a cabinet nominee, and do it against a former Republican senator who scored a lifetime 84 percent rating from the American Conservative Union and won combat medals fighting in Vietnam.

Looking at that resume, how did the White House not know the GOP would resort to historic obstructionist tactics?

The Hagel fiasco was fueled in part by media failures. And those failures ensure that we'll be forced to watch more GOP confirmation charades. 

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