It was a surprise to run into Sen. Chuck Hagel (R.-Neb.) and his wife Lilibeth Wednesday morning at Reagan National Airport. But it was an even greater surprise to learn that Hagel — who is stepping down this year after two terms in the Senate — may not support the Republican nominee for President, his old friend and comrade-in-arms from Vietnam John McCain.
Referring to a recent item in HUMAN EVENTS’ “Capital Briefs” section (March 10) in which we reported how Hagel told CNN’s John King “Chuck Hagel is out of the mix [for ‘08”],” I asked the senator whether that meant he had not yet endorsed McCain for President.
“You heard right,” Hagel replied, “John [McCain] and I have some serious disagreements on foreign policy.” When I asked if this meant their very public difference of opinion on Iraq, Hagel said: “It’s not just Iraq. It’s about the direction of where U.S. foreign policy is going over the next few years.”
That a sitting Republican senator would refuse to say whether he backs his party’s certain nominee for President was a bit of a jolt — especially since Hagel was one of a handful of GOP senators to support McCain over George W. Bush for the GOP nomination in 2000. After flirting with a presidential bid of his own and then opting against it, the 61-year-old Nebraskan met in New York with Michael Bloomberg when the New York mayor was being widely mentioned as an independent candidate for President in ’08. This fueled talk of an insurgent Bloomberg-Hagel ticket — talk that the Republican senator would not dampen or dismiss. Bloomberg eventually ruled out running as an independent.
Even after he and McCain had their disagreements over the U.S. presence in Iraq, the two senators and Vietnam veterans were still considered friends and Hagel was talked of as a prospective secretary of state in a McCain Administration.
Sitting Republican office-holders who refuse to back their party’s nominee for President historically have been either punished through defeat for renomination or they eventually switch parties. Nebraska’s Republican Sen. (1912-42) George W. Norris, to whom the maverick Hagel has been likened to, publicly endorsed Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt for President at least once and was denied renomination in 1942. Michigan Rep. Don Riegle, a liberal Republican, publicly explored not even voting for President Nixon’s re-election in 1972 and, a year later, became a Democrat. (Reigle was re-elected in ’74, and went on to serve three terms in the Senate as a Democrat). These options don’t really apply to Hagel, who is retiring from the Senate this year.