Wow. John McCain has had his tantrums before, but rarely has one revealed how intertwined his personal feelings and the Republican Party’s political tactics have become.
During Chuck Hagel’s confirmation hearings for defense secretary, McCain went Captain Queeg on his former BFF and fellow Vietnam vet for daring to question the wisdom of the surge in Iraq, which just happened to be the centerpiece of McCain’s argument that he’d make a better president than Barack Obama in 2008. McCain expressed shock that anyone anywhere could possibly fail to grasp what everyone knows—that the surge “worked” and the war needed to be won.
The tactic was to preemptively limit Hagel’s testimony to a single tree, so the forest could stay camouflaged. But McCain’s barely suppressed note of senior-officer outrage made Thursday’s exchange into a continual rerun right through the Sunday morning talk shows:
McCAIN: I want to know if you are right or wrong. That’s a direct question. I expect a direct answer.
HAGEL: The surge assisted in the objective. But—but, if we review the record a little bit…
McCAIN: Will you please answer the question—were you correct or incorrect when he said that the surge would be the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam? Were you correct or incorrect? Yes or no?
HAGEL: My reference to the surge being…
McCAIN: Are you going to answer the question, Senator Hagel? The question is, were you right or wrong? That’s a straightforward question. I would like to answer whether you are right or wrong and then you are free to elaborate.
HAGEL: Well, I’m not going to give you a yes or no answer.
McCAIN: Well, let the record show he refuses to answer the question. Now please go ahead.
HAGEL: Well, if you would like me to explain…
McCAIN: No, I actually would like an answer, yes or no.
HAGEL: Well, I’m not going to give you a yes or no on a lot of things today…. As to the comment I made about the most dangerous foreign policy decision since Vietnam, that was about not just the surge, but the overall war of choice going into Iraq.
McCain doesn’t want to hear about the “overall war,” of course, much less if it was one of choice or necessity. He wants to put Hagel in the position of sounding unpatriotic, or at least out of the can-do military mainstream, for refusing to salute a command decision. Everyone knows you’re not supposed to do that.
But at the same time, McCain is burning with personal frustration because Hagel was disloyal—to John McCain. Although Hagel was one of McCain’s most stalwart supporters against George W. Bush in 2000, he refused to endorse McCain in 2008 because of their differences over the Iraq war; Hagel’s wife quite publicly endorsed Obama. Because he lost to Obama, the Maverick is never going to rise higher than senator from Arizona, but here was another Republican senator, one elected a full ten years after McCain joined the club, moving up to head the most powerful military force the world has ever known. If McCain’s hysteria winds up leaving his legacy as small as his grudges, well, so be it.