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First Thoughts: Hagel's rough day

Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Former Senator Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing to become the next secretary of defense on Capitol Hill, Jan. 31, 2013.

Hagel’s rough day… But Democrats -- for now -- believe he’ll still win confirmation… An important reminder about Twitter and instant analysis… January jobs numbers: 157,000 jobs created, unemployment rate ticks up to 7.9%... White House to announce contraception rule?... Panetta, Dempsey to appear on “Meet the Press” this weekend… And remembering Ed Koch, the nation’s first celebrity mayor.

*** Hagel’s rough day: There’s no need to sugarcoat it -- former Sen. Chuck Hagel’s (R-NE) confirmation hearing yesterday before the Senate Armed Service Committee was brutal. It was a combination of a defense secretary nominee who appeared unprepared (you could tell he’s been out of politics since 2008), as well as a downright hostile reception from his former GOP colleagues (especially John McCain). Here’s the Washington Post: “Hagel appeared defensive, frustrated and lethargic during much of the hearing.” The New York Times: “Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee showed him little deference, cross-examining him like prosecutors and often cutting him off.” And here was Sen. Claire McCaskill’s (D-MO) charitable response to NBC’s Andrea Mitchell: “I think that Chuck Hagel is much more comfortable asking questions than answering them.” She added, “That’s one bad habit I think you get into when you’ve been in the Senate. You can dish it out, but sometimes it’s a little more difficult to take it.” Yesterday, we wrote that a bad performance could undo all the positive momentum Hagel’s nomination had over the past couple of weeks. So there goes the momentum.

*** Still, Democrats believe he’ll be confirmed: But is it enough to sink his nomination? Democrats -- from both the White House and Capitol Hill -- tell First Read that they’re still confident Hagel will win confirmation. You’re unlikely to see a Senate Democrat vote against him or even peel off today; in fact, the hostile GOP questioning might have made Democrats even more united, or so the White House hopes and believes. And if that’s the case, Hagel will have support from a majority of senators. So the question becomes: Do Republicans decide to mount a filibuster against Hagel? That could make things more problematic for his nomination, because he would need 60 votes instead of 51. But it also would create a problematic storyline for Republicans: Do they really filibuster one of their former colleagues who fought and bled in Vietnam?We thought our friend, the Washington Post’s Cillizza, put it well: “Chuck Hagel was … just plain bad during his confirmation hearing to be the next Secretary of Defense. And it almost certainly won’t keep him from becoming the next man to lead the Pentagon.”

*** On Twitter and instant analysis: We’ll make one more point about Hagel’s hearing yesterday: Twitter and all the instant analysis made a bad performance look even worse -- just like Twitter and instant analysis made Romney’s Ford Field speech, Donald Verrilli’s Supreme Court oral argument, and Barack Obama’s first debate all seem worse. And what eventually happened in those instances? Romney went on to win the GOP nomination, the Supreme Court upheld the health-care law, and Obama won the general election by four percentage points. So those things are a reminder that while Twitter and instant analysis can get the style right, they’re not as good when evaluating the substance or the overall political reality. And that’s a good lesson for all of us to keep in mind. Speaking of substance, NBC’s Sarah Blackwill counts that there were 38 references to “Afghanistan” or “Afghan” in yesterday’s hearing, versus 178 mentions of “Israel” or “Israeli.” Just an amazing lack of questioning of Hagel on the current war America’s involved in, let alone significant questions about the new battles in North Africa. Meanwhile, if you needed an example of why cutting budgets are so politically hard in Congress, notice how many of them (from both sides of the aisle) were sure to bring up whatever local military or defense installation is in their state to Hagel. And they asked him to make sure he understands how important (fill in the blank) is to our national security.

*** 157,000 jobs added in January, unemployment rate ticks up to 7.9%: Here’s the breaking news from the AP: “U.S. employers added 157,000 jobs in January and hiring was stronger over the past two years than previously thought, providing reassurance that the job market held steady while economic growth sputtered. The mostly upbeat Labor Department report included one discouraging sign: the unemployment rate rose to 7.9 percent from 7.8 percent in December. The unemployment rate is calculated from a survey of households, while job gains come from a survey of employers. The hiring picture over the past two years looked better after the department's annual revisions. Those showed employers added an average of roughly 180,000 jobs per month in 2012 and 2011, up from previous estimates of about 150,000. And hiring was stronger at the end of last year, averaging 200,000 new jobs in the final three months.” Perhaps the biggest news from the report: The November and December jobs numbers were revised upward -- to 247,000 in November and 196,000 in December.

*** White House to announce contraception rule? We are hearing that the Obama White House is telling abortion-rights and family-planning organizations that the administration’s revised contraception rule -- pertaining to the health-care law and religious-affiliated employers -- could be announced as early as today. So keep an eye out for this. It’s our understand this new revised rule will make it a little easier for religious organizations to qualify for the exemption on providing contraception. But we also understand that key women’s groups have signed off on this change. More to come later today.

*** On “Meet” this weekend: On Sunday, NBC’s Chuck Todd -- subbing for David Gregory -- will interview outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, as well as Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey. Chuck Todd will also speak with NBC’s Bob Costas (to talk about the future of the NFL in particular), and the roundtable includes Robert Gibbs, David Brooks, Ralph Reed, and Ana Navarro.

*** Remembering Ed Koch -- the nation’s first celebrity mayor: Finally, we conclude by noting the passing of former New York Mayor Ed Koch. Here’s the obituary in the New York Times: “Edward I. Koch, the master showman of City Hall, who parlayed shrewd political instincts and plenty of chutzpah into three tumultuous terms as mayor of New York with all the tenacity, zest and combativeness that personified his city of golden dreams, died Friday morning at age 88.” Interestingly, Koch was the first mayor to become a national celebrity, demonstrating how New York’s top politician could be a larger-than-life figure -- and it’s a model that Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg later followed. He was the first “national mayor” deciding that one of the best ways to run the city was to be seen as somebody who was omnipresent.  Also notable was Koch’s rivalry with Mario Cuomo, who beat Koch in the 1982 Democratic gubernatorial primary but who lost to Koch in the ’77 NYC mayoral Dem primary. An interesting thought exercise: What if Cuomo had beaten Koch in ’77, would he ever have become governor? Or what if Koch had beaten Cuomo for governor in 1982? Something for political junkies to chew on…

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