Barack Obama Proves Democrats Are Wusses

How do we know? Because he's going to nominate Republican Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense.

Sometime in the next few days, it appears, President Obama apparently plans to stand before the world and send a resounding and unmistakable message: Democrats are wusses.

That’s not the kind of message you expect from a Democratic president, but when Obama nominates Sen. Chuck Hagel—a Republican—to be his next Secretary of Defense, the symbolism will be unmistakable. Hagel will be Obama’s third defense secretary, and the second Republican: Robert Gates, the first, was a holdover from the George W. Bush administration.

If you count the tenure of William Cohen under President Clinton, way back in the 1990s, the pattern is unmistakable: Three of the last four defense secretaries under Democratic presidents will have been prominent Republicans.

Put it another way: Since 1996—through the Clinton, Bush, and Obama presidencies—a Democrat has run the Pentagon once, for about a year-and-a-half. That’s it.

Which means the world is likely to see Hagel’s nomination as an admission: Even Democrats trust Republicans more on national security issues!

That’s a lousy message to send to voters. And it should burn the hides of rank-and-file Democrats who want to see their own people control major cabinet positions—and rightly understand that’s usually one of the prizes of winning national elections.

Understand: Chuck Hagel is a veteran and a fine public servant—he was deeply critical of the Bush Administration’s invasion of Iraq long before public sentiment turned against that war. Which, in the minds of many Republicans, means that Hagel is a “RINO”—a Republican In Name Only, and he might as well be a Democrat.

But he’s not a Democrat.

It’s also true that presidents try to find at least one member of the opposing party to serve in their cabinet. But Republicans usually shuffle the token Democrat off to an agency they don’t care about. Do you remember Norm Mineta? Probably not, and for good reason.

The Department of Defense, on the other hand, is one of the the biggest and most powerful bureaucracies in Washington. It runs the military, does diplomacy, collects intelligence, and hunts down all the bad guys in the world. Outside of the president’s office, the secretary of defense has the biggest power base in federal government—and Democrats keep putting it in the hands of Republicans!

This might be understandable if the public still trusted Republicans more than Democrats on national security, but the Iraq War pretty much put an end to that. And in a stark reversal of stereotypes, the Democrats held the far more openly militaristic political convention last summer. Remember: “Osama bin Laden is dead and GM is alive!”

Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe Democrats and Republicans are so alike on foreign policy these days that it all ends up the same no matter who is running the Department of Defense. Or maybe President Obama figures he’s getting the best man for the job, or showing the public that he’s still serious about bipartisanship after all these years. But he should understand that he’s sending voters the message that the GOP is more trustworthy on national defense. And they might choose, ultimately, to vote accordingly.

Republicans are also quite good at appointing Republicans to run the Defense Department, it turns out. At this rate, they’re doing it only slightly more often than Democrats.