Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 26, 2007; A01
His Republican colleagues regard him warily. The White House barely speaks to him. He is reviled by his party's conservative base.
Looks as though Sen. Chuck Hagel is on a roll.
Both parties have their Iraq war contrarians. For the Democrats, it is Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, whose steadfast support for President Bush nearly cost him his seat last year and forced him to run as an independent. The Republican version is Hagel, a career maverick from Nebraska and the only GOP senator to call for an end to the war.
Hagel's sharp criticism of the war has placed him squarely in the mainstream of public opinion on Iraq and revived long-dormant speculation about his presidential ambitions. Hagel has been eclipsed by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a leading contender for his party's presidential nomination who has vigorously endorsed the president's war policies.
But with McCain appearing increasingly isolated on the issue as public opinion has turned overwhelmingly against the war, Hagel is acting like a politician who believes his stock is climbing. In other words, he is considering a White House run.
Hagel said in a wide-ranging interview this week that he is discussing his options with his family and other confidants and will make a decision in the next six weeks.
He said one possibility is forming a presidential exploratory committee and -- despite his outcast position within his party -- seeking the Republican nomination. Or he may seek a third Senate term. Then again, he might take a more creative path.
Hagel joked during the interview about teaming up with New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, a moderate Republican, and also floated the possibility of joining a bipartisan unity ticket with a Democrat -- with his name first, of course.
Hagel clearly admires Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and calls him "a star," but he doubts the two could ever team up given the vast difference in their parties' principles. "I don't know if it gets to that point, but there is a shift going on out there, and there's nothing like a war that does that," Hagel said.
His GOP critics fume that Hagel and his Democratic allies who sponsor resolutions opposing a troop buildup are undermining Bush at a critical moment. "I really don't understand Senator Hagel," said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah.). "But playing around with resolutions when we all know we've got to stay and get the job done -- that doesn't make any sense. Most Republicans want us to win over there."
Hagel attracted the support of only 1 percent of registered Republicans in recent polls, compared with 25 to 30 percent for McCain. And his standing among conservative party faithful who will determine the outcome of the Republican presidential nomination remains strikingly low because of the intensity of his attacks on Bush. But Hagel has gained a particular following within the antiwar community. An Internet "draft Hagel" movement has formed, and even die-hard liberals admit they find him appealing.
"Chuck Hagel for president! If it ever narrows down to a choice between him and some Democratic hack who hasn't the guts to fundamentally challenge the president on Iraq, then the conservative Republican from Nebraska will have my vote," said an Internet article last week by Robert Scheer, co-author of the book "The Five Biggest Lies Bush Told Us About Iraq."
Like McCain, his close friend and potential 2008 GOP rival, Hagel is a decorated Vietnam War veteran, but his assessment of the Iraq conflict is radically different. McCain has asserted that despite serious mistakes by the Bush administration, victory remains possible. Hagel believes that U.S. troops are being thrown into a civil war that cannot be won and calls the conflict "the most divisive issue in this country since Vietnam."
Earlier in their careers, McCain, 70, and Hagel, 60, were viewed as rising Republican stars, two plain-spoken outsiders with gritty military résumés. After losing to Bush in the 2000 GOP nomination battle, McCain greatly enhanced his stature inside the party by embracing Bush's Iraq policy. Meanwhile, Hagel, an early and persistent critic of the invasion, grew more estranged.
"He's held his view for a long time and I've held mine for a long time, so it's not as if we suddenly find ourselves on the opposite side of the issue," McCain said of Hagel. "I respect his views. I maintain my strong affection and respect for him."
Hagel warned against military action long before the Iraq invasion, but despite his trepidations, he supported a Senate resolution authorizing the war. He has since renounced his vote and has been trying to atone for it ever since. When Bush announced a plan earlier this month to deploy additional troops, Hagel co-sponsored, with two prominent Democrats, a new Senate resolution opposing the plan. Though nonbinding, the measure has triggered the first significant confrontation between the White House and Congress over Iraq since the war began.
Hagel vainly implored his Republican colleagues to join him in supporting the resolution, which was approved 12 to 9 during a session of the Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday. "If you wanted a safe job, go sell shoes," he said. "This is a tough business."
One of Hagel's sparring partners is Lieberman, who has infuriated Democrats with his outspoken war advocacy. Two weeks ago, the Nebraska senator was introduced to the Internet video site YouTube when his son, an eighth-grader, showed him a clip from "Meet the Press" that was drawing heavy traffic. It was a showdown between Hagel and Lieberman over Iraq.
If critics of Bush's troop increase have their way, Lieberman asserted, the consequences "for my children and grandchildren, I fear, will be disastrous."
"That's ridiculous," Hagel shot back, "and I am offended that any responsible member of Congress or anyone else would even suggest such a thing. Senator Lieberman talks about his children and grandchildren. We all have children and grandchildren; he doesn't have a market on that."
Hagel is a loner in the Senate, a serious and somewhat distant colleague who eschews consultants and other trappings of political ambition -- although he is a regular on political talk shows. He travels the country extensively and particularly enjoys talking to students. Last month, he spoke at Nebraska Wesleyan University and the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, and he is to receive an honorary degree from the College of William and Mary next month. Ambassadors and foreign officials visit his office regularly.
He often speaks of the current period as a "transformational time" that could bring a political earthquake, as early as the 2008 election. He sees parallels to 1960 and 1980, which resulted in the pivotal presidencies of John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan.
"Politics and politicians must become relevant to the times . . . or they become irrelevant," Hagel said. "And when you become irrelevant, something is going to fill that void."