Well before President Obama formally nominated Chuck Hagel to be the next Secretary of Defense on Monday, senators, pundits, and community leaders started grumbling over the choice. Their grievances against Hagel include a homophobic remark he made for which he has since apologized profusely, a comment he made mischaracterizing pro-Israel lobbying groups as the "Jewish lobby" (as it is commonly called in Israel itself) and positions he has articulated on the Middle East and defense spending. Republican senators have threatened to vote against confirming Hagel and to filibuster his confirmation vote. The resounding question I ask is, "Why?"
Aside from the political points Republican senators might score with their constituents by vocalizing disagreement with President Obama and obstructing his agenda, what do they hope to accomplish?
Let us turn to the Constitution, which gives the president the power to: "nominate, and by and with the advice and consent of the Senate... appoint ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls, judges of the Supreme Court, and all other officers of the United States." However, not all appointments are the same: A Supreme Court nominee is very different from a Cabinet secretary.
How so? Aside from the dissimilar job descriptions, their holders carry very different tenures and enjoy sharply disparate levels of autonomy. Supreme Court justices are appointed for life, accountable only to the Constitution, which they have sworn to "support and defend," and cannot be removed except through impeachment. The decisions of the nine men and women are often of tremendous consequence: The Supreme Court has done everything from sustaining a racially segregated "separate, but equal" society to later desegregating public schools, from upholding the government's internment of Japanese Americans during World War II to establishing a right to obtain abortions, birth control and have consensual sex with a person of the opposite sex. The Supreme Court even determined the outcome of the 2000 election. Supreme Court justices can serve for decades and permanently shape the course of American history. The confirmation process therefore merits extensive scrutiny.
This brings us to Chuck Hagel and the appointment of Cabinet secretaries. Cabinet secretaries are trusted advisers, selected by presidents to be extensions of themselves overseeing Executive Branch departments. Unlike Supreme Court justices, who have free reign after their confirmation, secretaries take their cues from president they serve, whose vision and agenda they are tasked with advancing. While presidential appointees certainly advise the president and make administrative decisions over their respective departments, the president's will reigns supreme. As Akhil Reed Amar writes in America's Constitution: A Biography: "Cabinet officials were part of the president's branch -- secretaries who existed largely to help him carry out his responsibilities and answered directly to him under the opinions clause. A president could closely monitor these men and remove them at will."
The point here is that regardless of who occupies the Pentagon's top post, or any other appointed position, policy will be set by President Obama. If confirmed, Hagel's positions on defense will not suddenly become the policy of the United States military and his positions on other issues will be all but irrelevant given the position to which he was nominated. Yes, Hagel will have a seat at the table and will certainly inform our policy, but as one of the president's mentors from his days in the Senate, he has had the president's ear quite for some time. And, if he is insubordinate or otherwise incompatible with the president, he can be shown the door.
Diversity in a Cabinet is a good thing. A team of dueling advisers with different ideas and perspectives, like President Lincoln's famed "Team of Rivals" is vastly superior to a group of yes-men. As we wind down the war in Afghanistan and address new challenges and opportunities, the fresh ideas of someone like Chuck Hagel, a Vietnam veteran and distinguished public servant, a Republican who is difficult to pigeonhole, would be an asset to the administration.
There is no reason why senators should obstruct Hagel's confirmation. Hagel will serve at the will of President Obama and execute his vision. If Hagel is defeated in the Senate, another person will be nominated who would pursue the identical agenda, because unlike Supreme Court justices, secretaries are subordinates who do not determine policy, but rather help carry out the policies of the presidents they serve.