(As always this column appears here a week after its newspaper release per my deal with the syndicator)
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BY BOB FRANKEN
Mind reading is impossible, but you can bet we are not getting the complete story in the public part of the controversy over the nomination of Chuck Hagel to be defense secretary. A look beneath the surface leaves strong evidence of some private agendas, the distinct impression there might be payback involved.
That never comes up, of course, as the White House and critics argue over Hagel’s views on Israel and Iran, but let’s add to the mix any hard feelings that might exist over the role Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu played in the recent election. He all but endorsed Mitt Romney and took a lot of shots at Barack Obama. Now President Obama has nominated a man who is causing an uproar, particularly among Bibi’s most ardent American champions. After all, Sen. Chuck Hagel got into several tiffs with leaders of what he disparagingly called the “Jewish lobby,” particularly with his scornful comment, “I am not an Israeli senator; I’m a United States senator.”
Hagel also managed to antagonize his fellow Republicans when he served with them in the Senate. Although he did vote to authorize George W. Bush’s Iraq War, he became an outspoken critic of how it was run. Perhaps some of them may be indulging in a little payback of their own with their harsh reactions to his nomination. He would send “the worst possible signal,” huffed Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, which is typical of the GOP reaction. So we can expect a knock-down, drag-out brawl during the confirmation process.
It’s not hard to conclude that the president seems to be looking for ways to pick a fight. Making it clear he favored U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice to replace Hillary Clinton at the State department was sure to push the buttons of those with oversized egos who had borne the brunt of her undiplomatic put-downs through the years. He backed down in her case, but he seems to be going out of his way to rattle some cages.
It is true that he was vilified by some supporters for being a meek patsy during his first term, allowing the hard-right fanatics to control the agenda, this time around, he is pushing the limit in his effort to show he won’t be bullied.
A case in point is his declaration that he “will not compromise” over raising the debt ceiling. Take that, you tea-party ruffians! The problem is that kicking sand in the bullies’ faces is a big snow job. Of course he’ll compromise, as he deals with Congress over the debt ceiling. He certainly does not want to go down in history as the chief executive who oversaw the first financial default by the United States of America.
Forget the speculation about some sort of unilateral action by him. It would cause such a crisis in government that there is no worthy alternative to working out something. So he will have to play ball with the nut cases on Capitol Hill. If he can set the rules, more power to him -- literally -- but give-and-take with the legislative branch on budget matters is not optional. It’s right there in the Constitution.
The problem is the framers’ assumption that the three levers of the balance of power would be operated by reasonable and honorable leaders. It is fair to say that these days, the process is all too often controlled by unreasonable, dishonorable people who are undermining democracy with their self-serving foolishness.
A robust argument over national priorities with toughness on all sides is very healthy. We have huge problems we must solve together as a country. Obama, as the re-elected president, is entitled to push his priorities and be more forceful now than he was in his first term. The debate, however, is far too significant to be controlled by pettiness and misguided paybacks.
© 2013 Bob Franken
Distributed by King Features Syndicate, Inc.