Chuck Hagel and the "radical center"

Yesterday we ran Sen. Chuck Hagel's op-ed on Iraq. Here's a piece: "The time for more U.S. troops in Iraq has passed. We do not have more troops to send, and even if we did, they would not bring a resolution to Iraq. Militaries are built to fight and win wars, not bind together failing nations. We are once again learning a very hard lesson in foreign affairs: America cannot impose a democracy on any nation - regardless of our noble purpose."

Today Washington Post columnist David Ignatius nods his approval and speculates about whether this month's electoral rebuke of the GOP might give Hagel his "moment" to run for president. Ignatius writes: "Hagel likes to evoke the Republicanism of Dwight Eisenhower, another former military officer who could be devastating in his criticism of the policies advocated by the military-industrial complex. . . . Will that pre-Reagan Revolution message play to the party faithful in Iowa and New Hampshire in 2008? Will the Bush administration's problems become so severe that Republicans would embrace a senator from the radical center? The very fact that Hagel is mulling a campaign reminds us that American politics turned a corner this month and that we are in new territory."

Hagel had a notion about how this would all play out. We interviewed him in March and reported: "If the Republicans are hit by a 'political tsunami' in November's congressional elections, Hagel said, they may turn to someone like him." [He even got the metaphor right!] So if he's ever going to have a moment, this ought to be it.

I don't think it's going to happen, though, and the reasons lie somewhere in Ignatius's phrase "a senator from the radical center."

Back in February The New York Times had a long profile of Hagel. It's now locked up where it can't be read for free, but here's the detail I most remember (apropos of Ignatius's recap of Hagel's Iraq warnings and criticism): "When he rose on the Senate floor that October [2002] to explain his vote in favor of the resolution authorizing force — he'd persuaded himself that his vote might strengthen [Colin] Powell's hand — he gave a speech that would have required no editing had he decided to vote against it."

In other words, Hagel can claim he turned out to be right about the war, but anyone impressed by that would naturally ask: So why did you vote for it anyway? The same questioner would probably not be impressed by the claim that he thought he was helping Colin Powell bring sanity to the White House's war plans.

I take it that with the phrase "radical center," Ignatius means to suggest that Hagel's foreign policy view is centrist and that's he's radical for daring to oppose the president and much of his party. But Hagel is no centrist on economic or social issues; you might say he votes the way Jack Kenny would suggest a real Republican should. As for his war stance, no less a conservative than George Will has suggested it's the policymakers of whom Hagel is critical who have acted radically.

Bottom line: By rights of his voting record and government philosophy, Hagel ought to be a favorite of true conservatives; they could still decide they don't want him president, but at a minimum he should be the truth-teller who can't win. Instead, his market niche seems to be lefties or independents wowed by his truth-to-power war stance (the key vote notwithstanding). And you're more likely to see him called a maverick or (more ridiculously, a moderate) than a conservative, which is what he would call himself if you asked.