Republican realists rap party over ‘preposterous’ Hagel attacks

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Maybe someday the GOP will thank President Obama for helping revive the party’s orphaned realist wing and making it more politically competitive.

A series of the party’s old guard realists—retired Gen. Colin Powell, Council on Foreign Relations president Richard Haass, former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage–took to the news shows Sunday to speak in favor of Chuck Hagel’s candidacy for Secretary of Defense, and more broadly to urge their party to take a more moderate approach on national security and social policies.

“I think what the Republican Party needs to do now is take a very hard look at itself and understand that the country has changed,” retired Gen. Colin Powell, who served as George W. Bush’s Secretary of State, said on NBC’s Meet the Press Sunday. “The country is changing demographically, and if the Republican Party does not change along with that demographic, they’re going to be in trouble.”

The Republican Party has made a “significant shift to the right” in recent years, Powell said, describing himself as a “moderate but I’m still a Republican. … And until I voted for Mr. Obama twice, I had voted for seven straight Republican presidents.”

Powell, who chaired the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the first Gulf war, also praised Hagel as a “superbly qualified” candidate for Secretary of Defense. If confirmed, Hagel, a former two-term Republican Senator from Nebraska and twice decorated Vietnam war combat veteran, would be the first former enlisted soldier to serve as Pentagon chief.

Hagel “knows what war is and he will fight a war if it’s necessary, but he’s a guy who will do it with great deliberation and care,” Powell said.

Haass, the president of the Council of Foreign Relations and former State Department policy planning chief in the George W. Bush administration, said Sunday it’s fair to question Hagel about his policy positions. But Haass but strongly defended Hagel from what he called “preposterous” smears by hawkish foes. Most notably, Elliott Abrams, a CFR senior fellow and former Bush Middle East advisor, claimed in a controversial interview with NPR this month that Hagel is an anti-Semite–a charge refuted by among others the Jewish community of Hagel’s home state of Nebraska.

“These are loaded words that are being cast about, and I think they’re simply beyond the pale,” Haass said on ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos.

The Council on Foreign Relations had previously distanced itself from Abrams’ comments, telling the Back Channel in a Jan. 8th statement that the remarks don’t represent the views of the institution. But Haass’ rebuke on Sunday went further, calling the nature of Abrams’ attack on Hagel out of bounds.

“Where I think people are going over the line is with ad hominem attacks — questioning for example whether he’s an anti-Semite,” Haass said, adding “I’ve known Chuck Hagel for more 20 years. For what it’s worth, I think that’s preposterous.”

Abrams has been among a small group of neoconservative operatives led by Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol leading the campaign against Hagel’s candidacy. (Abrams’ wife Rachel is a founding board member of the Emergency Committee for Israel, a Kristol-led GOP group that has run ads against Hagel and Obama.)

But to date their campaign does not seem to have got much traction in the Senate.

Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), a fellow Vietnam veteran, said Sunday he would not seek to block Hagel, but said he would have questions on his policy positions at his forthcoming confirmation hearings.

“I plan to make a judgment as to whether I think he’s appropriate to be secretary of defense or not,” McCain said on CNN Sunday.

“I think Senator Hagel will be approved,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) told Fox News Sunday. “I think the history of nominees shows, and I think his own qualifications also demonstrate, that he has the capacity. But I want to know his positions on those issues.”