11/30/2007 01:16 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Will a Democrat Seize the Hagel Opportunity?

By indicating his readiness to consider being a running mate for a Democratic candidate, Sen. Chuck Hagel has raised the possibility of a precedent-shattering move by one of the Democratic contenders that could transform the race for the Democratic nomination. Such a move may also offer the best chance this country will have to make the fundamental change in foreign policy that it needs.

In a significant development that the Times and Post both failed to cover, Hagel introduced a potential wild card into the Democratic race Wednesday when he was asked about running for vice-president on the Democrat ticket next year. He said he didn't think he would be asked, but then added: "If there's an area I could make a difference in....I would entertain these kinds of serious questions...everything's possible."

Hagel also said he would rate the administration "the lowest in capacity, in capability, in policy, in consensus -- almost every area, I would give it the lowest grade." That broadside and his open expression of willingness to run on a Democratic ticket signal the end of his career as a Republican.

Hagel has been demonstrating throughout 2007 that he understands that he cannot help get the United States out of the strategic crisis in the Middle East that the Bush administration's militarized foreign policy has created within the Republican Party. In May he said he would consider running for President as an independent, and in September he announced that he would not run for a third term in the Senate, which would have required staying in the GOP.

If either Barack Obama or John Edwards were to negotiate with Hagel now on his being the candidate's running mate if he is nominated and then announce it before the end of the year, he would stand to gain a significant advantage in the Iowa caucus as well as the New Hampshire Primary and deal a major blow to what had seemed until very recently an inevitable Hillary Clinton candidacy.

Hagel is not angling for a spot on a Hillary Clinton ticket. In an interview on Bloomberg News November 9, he said that when world leaders "hear leading presidential candidates talk like cowboys with the lowest common denominator being `I can be tougher than you, I'll go to war before you or we aren't going to talk to anybody,' that's recklessly irresponsible.'' That was an obvious reference to the criticisms by Giuliani and Clinton of Obama's statement that he would begin his presidency with direct talks with Iran.

Hagel has a political appeal that transcends party identification. He has the image that John McCain once had as a truth-teller but combined with a reputation for thoughtfulness on national security that McCain lacks. He is a straight shooter who doesn't shoot from the hip.

Even before he began his disengagement from the Republican Party, Hagel was articulating an alternative to the Bush policy in Iraq as though he were in the opposition party. In 2006, he called for a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and insisted that a new strategy for Iraq "must include timeframes", calling them "forcing mechanisms that prompt action and define consequences."

And in 2007, Hagel has become the leading advocate in American politics of a diplomatic settlement with Iran. In an October 17 letter to Bush, Hagel called for "direct, unconditional, and comprehensive talks with the Government of Iran." That letter was a shot across the bow of the Bush administration for its insistence that Iran must agree to the main demand of the United States - suspension of its uranium enrichment program - before any negotiations about its nuclear program and other issues linked to it can begin.

Both Edwards and Obama appeal to large progressive segments of the Democratic Party base but lack credentials on national security - a point that Clinton has exploited to emphasize her electability. Nor has either of them succeeded in forging a compelling message on national policy. Having Hagel as vice-presidential candidate would instantly enhance the credibility on national security of any Democratic candidate whose ticket he would join.

In announcing that Hagel would be his vice-presidential running mate, a creative candidate could offer the prospect that Hagel would be the single most influential figure in his administration on foreign policy and national security. In other words, as Vice-President Hagel would do whatever is necessary to promote a strategy of disengagement and diplomatic settlement, just as Dick Cheney has done whatever was necessary to justify aggressive war in Iraq and Iran in the Bush administration. That concept would have a powerful appeal to activists in Iowa and New Hampshire and create a new dynamic in the rest of the primary states.

No presidential hopeful has ever identified the vice-presidential running mate before the first primary, let alone chosen a running mate who is technically still in the other party. But then there has never been such an opportunity to put together a presidential ticket that could pull the country out of one war and prevent yet another. The democratic contender who grasps the Hagel opportunity will demonstrate exactly the kind of boldness needed for both the general election and challenge of forging a new foreign policy.