What history says about Chuck Hagel's Senate chances

It’s almost irresistible to compare Chuck Hagel’s controversial nomination and the failed bid of John Tower in 1989. The differences and similarities between the two defense secretary wannabes offer some insight into how much Hagel might be bloodied and how Washington has changed in the intervening years.

Like Hagel, Tower was a former senator when he was nominated by George H.W. Bush to run the Pentagon in 1989. Tower was the godfather of Texas Republicans. He won the Senate seat that was vacated by Lyndon Johnson following the 1960 election. He was the first Republican senator sent to D.C. from Texas since Reconstruction and one of just a handful from any southern state. He rose to become chairman of the Senate Armed Services committee and made a run at being Ronald Reagan’s defense secretary in 1981.

Like Hagel, Tower wasn’t especially well liked in the Senate, where he was seen as prickly. And just as Hagel stood apart from his party, so did Tower, particularly by being pro-choice and a critic of Reagan’s strategic defense initiative. But overall, he had much less ideological distance from his tribe than does Hagel.

When he was nominated by Bush, Tower had little support when stories of excessive drinking, womanizing, and sexual harassment started to emerge. It’s possible that Tower might have survived if he was better liked in the normally protective Senate, but they seemed all too eager to insert the stiletto.

When Sen. Sam Nunn, then the chairman of Armed Services, came out against Tower, his fate was probably sealed. The likes of Sens. Joe Lieberman, David Boren, Ernest Hollings and Pat Moynihan voted against him, too. He lost 53-47 which is stunning for a former Senator being judged by his peers.

So what does this mean for Hagel? The good news for Hagel is the Senate is Democratic. The president’s allies have a majority. This was not so for Tower.

Then there’s the issue of hedging as a confirmation hearing. Hagel’s (some would say prescient) wariness of the Iraq war and his comments on Iran’s nuclear menace can probably be hedged, unlike the drinking and harassment charges which went right to the heart of whether Tower was fit to serve. With Hagel, he just has to say that the president’s policy is not to allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons capability and back off his own statements.

Also, there’s no figure quite like Sam Nunn, who was widely regarded as the Senate Brain on defense matters. For Tower, Nunn's disapproval was fatal. In today’s atomized world, no one senator commands that kind of influence on a policy matter. 

But, two things could derail Hagel. First, his Israel comments have left so many Democrats unwilling to commit to supporting Hagel that you have to wonder if he could become undone. Second, Washington is now Filibuster Town. Anything that goes to the Senate is in danger of getting buried by the promiscuous, unprecedented use of the filibuster. It would have been inconceivable that Tower wouldn’t come up for  a vote. It’s entirely possible Hagel’s nomination would be blocked from a vote.

Life is unpredictable and these things matter not just for Hagel but for us all. Robert Bork’s defeat led, eventually, to the nomination of the titular swing vote, Anthony Kennedy. After Tower, Bush chose a conservative and well respected congressman to be secretary of defense, a job where he’d run the first Gulf War and then go on to bigger things. His name was Dick Cheney.

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