Barney Frank's Glum Support for Chuck Hagel

Why Frank might be overlooking Hagel's gay rights record.

Watching Barney Frank begrudgingly support Chuck Hagel’s nomination for Secretary of Defense, despite Hagel’s rather unsavory history of saying stupid stuff about gay people, offers a nice example of why Hagel can remain at once controversial without facing much serious threat of losing his confirmation battle. Throughout the Hagel story, Washington has appeared a bit confusing to the casual observer: President Obama nominated the conservative Republican former Senator, and in doing so, he attracted the ire of many conservatives and the support of many liberals. Further proving that up is down, we have Wall Street Journal pundits criticizing Hagel’s unsavory opinion of gay people back in the wild 1990s, and gay rights icon Barney Frank expressing support for his nomination. Confused yet?

The Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens, archly conservative on foreign policy and prominent among Hagel’s detractors, lays out the complaints with Hagel’s record on LGBT rights in his column today. Any change of heart on gay issues, Stephens says, is nothing more than political opportunism:

In 1998, when it was politically opportune for Mr. Hagel to do so, he bashed Clinton nominee James Hormel for being “openly, aggressively gay,” a fact he said was disqualifying for becoming ambassador to Luxembourg. Late last year, when it was again politically opportune, Mr. Hagel apologized for his gay-bashing. Mr. Hormel accepted the apology, while noting that “the timing appears to be self-serving.” Yes it did.

In 1999, when the military’s “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy was broadly popular, Mr. Hagel scoffed at the idea of repealing it: “The U.S. Armed Forces aren’t some social experiment.” Since then, Mr. Hagel has offered his opinions on many subjects in scores of published articles. In not one of them did he recant or amend his views on gay issues. His public about-face only occurred when his name made Mr. Obama’s shortlist for secretary of defense.

This sounds an awful lot like a problem that might be pointed out with gusto by Barney Frank, icon in the gay rights movement. And in fact, it was. In a statement just last week, Frank called Hagel’s comments on Hormel “aggressively bigoted,” and noted, “I cannot think of any other minority group in the U.S. today where such a negative statement and action made in 1998 would not be an obstacle to a major presidential appointment.” Imagine our surprise Monday, when Frank expressed regretful support for Hagel’s nomination to the Boston Globe:

“I was hoping the president wouldn’t nominate him,” Frank told the Globe today.

“As much as I regret what Hagel said, and resent what he said, the question now is going to be Afghanistan and scaling back the military,” Frank said. “In terms of the policy stuff, if he would be rejected [by the Senate], it would be a setback for those things.”

What is going on here? A couple working theories (apart from the defense policy-related ones Frank offered up-front):

First, several pundits have noted that Hagel is benefiting from an “enemy of my enemy is my friend” effect on the left. Liberals are still irked that Susan Rice, Obama’s first choice for secretary of state was obstructed by Republicans, and so they are ready to support the President’s traditionally broad latitude to appoint his own advisers. Obama has nominated Hagel and, annoyed by Republican opposition, Democrats must rally behind him. Frank specifically sites Republican opposition to Hagel in his revised support for him. “With the attack coming out of the right, I hope he gets confirmed,” he says. That’s about as explicit as anyone has been in saying they support Hagel because Republicans oppose him.

Speculating a bit more, many among us assume that Frank is playing politics.  As he made sure to let everyone know, he’s asked Gov. Deval Patrick to appoint him interim Senator to replace John Kerry. Patrick’s adviser has expressed reservations about doing so. But one way to get the President on board with your “candidacy” (in a contest with an electorate of one) is to show that you’ll loyally vote for his Defense nominee, should he need it.

The Atlantic Wire’s Elspeth Reeve writes persuasively that though Hagel is a “controversial” pick, he’s probably not going to be a failed one. “Holding up Hagel as a controversial nominee who is almost certain to be confirmed would seem to require a bit of cognitive dissonance,” she says. The party loyalty considerations Frank seems to have put into his reversal on Hagel offer a nice case study on how this could possibly be the case.