Chuck Hagel probably never thought he'd have to win a popularity contest in the Senate.
Maybe that's why he wasn't terribly careful about whom he confronted or whom he offended. He popped off on the "Jewish lobby" and a gay Clinton nominee. His fellow Republicans will never forget the relish with which he lectured them on the flaws of the Iraq War -- after he voted to authorize it.
Policy aside, Hagel's bedeviled by his own abrasive personality. In a chamber known for back-patting and elbow-rubbing, the former Nebraska senator mostly rubbed people the wrong way. Now, on his path to the Pentagon, he has to hope that irritation doesn't come back to bite him.
"He was respected as a colleague in the normal Senate tradition but was somewhat of a lone wolf and did not forge the deep personal relationships with his fellow Republicans that would translate into a ready reservoir of support for his nomination," said John Ullyot, a former Marine intelligence officer who was the spokesman for the Senate Armed Services Committee under Chairman John Warner from 2003 to 2007. "On top of that, his outspokenness and blunt criticism of several Republican priorities at a critical time, including Iraq and Iran, while sincere and heartfelt, have left him without a natural platform of enthusiasm for his confirmation."
Those hurdles "are not insurmountable," Ullyot added. "But he starts the process with a long and uncharted road ahead."
In the past, a former senator could count on getting a gentleman's confirmation vote from his old club. But Hagel can't even count on a fellow Republican Cornhusker to give him a hand.
One vote that will be tough for Hagel to win: that of fellow Nebraska Republican Deb Fischer. Hagel crossed party lines to back Fischer's Democratic opponent, former Sen. Bob Kerrey, in 2012. Now, Fischer sits in judgment of Hagel as a freshman member of the Armed Services Committee, the panel that will handle his confirmation hearing.
In a statement released Monday, Fischer hinted at what could be the ultimate spectacle of a Hagel confirmation hearing: her chance to question him directly from behind the dais.
"I plan to closely review Senator Hagel's record and look forward to meeting with him to discuss his views on America's role in an increasingly dangerous world. As a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, I will also have the opportunity to publicly question Senator Hagel during his confirmation hearing in the coming weeks," she said. "This process will be thorough and fair, and I look forward to participating in it."
President Barack Obama acknowledged Hagel's rougher edges in praising his independence during a White House ceremony on Monday afternoon.
"In the Senate, I came to admire his courage and his judgment, his willingness to speak his mind, even if it wasn't popular, even if it defied the conventional wisdom, and that's exactly the spirit I want on my national security team -- a recognition that when it comes to the defense of our country, we are not Democrats or Republicans, we are Americans," Obama said.
Often, it wasn't just Hagel's thinking that proved unpopular. It was his way of doing business.
"Chuck always marched to his own drum when he was in the Senate. Even by Senate terms, he tended to be very much a freelancer. He ended up rubbing some people the wrong way by doing that," said former Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), an early first-term Obama choice to lead the Commerce Department who withdrew because of policy differences.
The combination of raw nerves among his old colleagues and policy concerns among junior senators have cast doubt on Hagel's confirmation process, which could prove to be the trickiest for a Pentagon pick since Texas Sen. John Tower was rejected, 47-53, in 1989. He was the last Cabinet nominee to lose a vote on the Senate floor, though others have since been withdrawn. A handful of Democratic senators, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), threw their support to Hagel on Monday. But Obama and Hagel could count themselves lucky when a senator keeps his or her powder dry.
"Sen. Hagel is a war hero who served our country honorably and was prescient in his questioning of the Iraq War. But we must look at his entire public-service record in its totality in the upcoming confirmation hearings," said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat who is sometimes mentioned as a potential presidential candidate. "Considering some of the statements Sen. Hagel has made and votes he has cast, particularly regarding Iran policy, tough questions must and will be asked to clarify his views before these hearings are complete. I look forward to a fair and thorough process."
Though Hagel has apologized since his name first surfaced for the Pentagon gig, he once derided as "openly and aggressively gay" another presidential nominee: Ambassador James Hormel. Since the apology, he has gained the support of Barney Frank, the former Democratic Massachusetts congressman who is lobbying Gov. Deval Patrick for an appointment to temporarily fill Sen. John Kerry's seat if he's confirmed as secretary of state.
Freshman Wisconsin Democrat Tammy Baldwin, the first openly gay member of the Senate, told MSNBC on Monday that she still has questions about Hagel's views, particularly now that the "don't ask, don't tell" policy regarding gays and lesbians in the military has been repealed.
"I do want to speak with him, particularly about his comments 14 years ago, to see if his apology is sincere and sufficient," Baldwin said on MSNBC's "Andrea Mitchell Reports.""I want to hear how he's evolved on this issue in the last 14 years."
And while Hagel's record reflects some support for Israel, he has come under fire for opposing certain sanctions on Iran and referring to the "Jewish lobby" -- rather than the pro-Israel lobby -- in an interview for a controversial book about the influence of pro-Israel forces in Washington.
"This is an in-your-face nomination by the president to all of us who are supportive of Israel," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said on CNN on Sunday, when it was already clear that Obama would tap Hagel.
Hagel told the Lincoln Journal Star on Monday that his record has been "completely distorted" by his critics and that he has shown "unequivocal, total support for Israel."
But few senators rushed to defend the Pentagon nominee.
Reid released a comparatively tepid endorsement of Hagel, and several Democrats released statements making clear that they were not ready to endorse the president's pick for the top national security position in his administration.
The reaction to Hagel's nomination was like the night to the day of Kerry's selection to run the State Department late last month.
"I am surprised and disappointed President Obama has chosen to move forward with Sen. Hagel's nomination given the significant concerns that both Democrats and Republicans in the Senate have expressed about Sen. Hagel's positions and past votes on issues regarding some of our closest allies and most pressing national security threats," Ohio Sen. Rob Portman said, noting that he would give Hagel a fair hearing.
Here's what Portman, who served at the Cabinet level in President George W. Bush's administration, said about Kerry on Dec. 21: "I think the White House made the right choice to nominate John Kerry. He certainly has the necessary foreign policy experience. Maybe most important, he has developed relationships with foreign leaders around the world that can be very helpful at a time when we face so many challenges. ... I look forward to supporting his nomination, and I suspect he'll be confirmed pretty easily."
Few on Capitol Hill are predicting that Hagel will be defeated -- Democrats hold 55 seats and Hagel has a handful of GOP friends left in the Senate -- but Democrats privately acknowledge it could be a bloody battle. Only 25 of the 45 Republican sitting senators ever served with Hagel, who retired in 2009 after two terms. Of the 33 senators who made tribute speeches to Hagel when he left, only four are Republicans who still serve in the Senate.
Hagel may have enemies. But Obama allies also were quick to dust off old quotes from Hagel's former GOP colleagues praising him for his national security and foreign policy expertise: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky in 2008 called the retiring senator "one of Nebraska's great statesmen" and Arizona Sen. John McCain floated Hagel's name as a candidate for secretary of state.
"McConnell was right a few years aho [sic] when he called Hagel 'a great statesmen [sic],'" former White House political adviser David Axelrod wrote on Twitter.
But Republicans say Hagel severed his ties with the GOP over the course of several years, starting with his pivot against the Iraq War and continuing through his wife Lilibet's endorsement of Obama in 2008 -- a public pronouncement that was taken as Hagel's own stamp of approval.
"Coming out for Barack Obama in 2008 wasn't something that went down well with people who were supporting John McCain," Gregg told POLITICO. "For me, I have no problem with Chuck Hagel."
Hagel better hope that's the case for the majority of the folks who still have votes.
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