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First Thoughts: Five lessons we've learned from the Hagel fight

The five lessons we’ve learned from the Hagel fight… 1) Political betrayal is a worse sin than being a member of the opposing party… 2) Getting 60 votes remains the standard in the Senate… 3) Confirmation hearings DO matter… 4) For Republicans, when in doubt just say “Benghazi”… 5) Hagel has been wounded… Obama travels to GA to press for universal pre-K… The two splits inside the GOP… Building a better “likely voter model”… And don’t count on the “six-year itch.”

*** Five lessons we’ve learned from the Hagel fight: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid yesterday filed a cloture motion -- requiring 60 votes -- on Chuck Hagel’s nomination to be defense secretary that appears set for Friday. And it’s worth noting that the entire debate over Hagel is upside down: It’s Senate Republicans who are opposing a former GOP senator; it’s Senate Democrats who are uniformly supporting him; and the former Vietnam War hero has been accused by his detractors of being “cozy” with Iran. The White House remains confident he’ll get 60 votes and beat the GOP filibuster -- the first time it’s ever been used against a defense secretary nominee and only third time it’s been used against a cabinet nominee. But the vote is going to be close, and Senate Democrats are bracing themselves for Republicans denying them 60 votes. Right now, whether Hagel gets 60 depends on Hagel opponents like John McCain and Roy Blunt, who both earlier signaled they would NOT participate in a filibuster. Key Republican opponents of Hagel are hoping that the longer they delay the process, there’s the chance another shoe might drop. McCain and Blunt are said to be at least listening to folks trying to persuade them for more time and to join the filibuster. So how did we get here? What have we learned from this Hagel fight? We point to five lessons.

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Former U.S. Senator Chuck Hagel testifies during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on his nomination to be Defense Secretary, on Capitol Hill in Washington, in this January 31, 2013, file photo.

*** Political betrayal, getting 60 votes, confirmation hearings matter, yelling “Benghazi,” and Hagel has been wounded: One, political betrayal is a worse sin than being a member of the opposing party. (The chief example here is John McCain’s tough questions to Hagel on the Iraq surge, which John Kerry -- who received so much praise from McCain -- also opposed.) Two, getting 60 votes remains the standard in the Senate. (This is a reminder for all the future legislative fights and nomination battles we’ll see over the next four years; let’s stop pretending this will change anytime soon.) Three, confirmation hearings, while maybe not decisive, do matter. (Just ask yourself why John Brennan and Jack Lew are having an easier confirmation process. Answer: They aced their confirmation hearings. Hagel, on the other hand, was a borderline disaster on style and he struggled on substance.) Four, Benghazi has become a catch-all Republican fallback, with McCain and Lindsey Graham wanting more answers on the subject before they support moving Hagel’s nomination along. (When in doubt, just yell “Benghazi.” But what’s left to debate? The issue has been litigated at two presidential debates, Hillary Clinton’s two congressional hearings, and Leon Panetta’s one.) And five, Hagel has been wounded by the entire process. (Yes, if confirmed, he has the ability -- just like Tim Geithner did -- to rehabilitate his image, but there are serious questions about his effectiveness, especially in dealing with Congress. Jack Reed, it’s the president on Line 1.)

Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee engage in a sharp discussion regarding Chuck Hagel's nomination as defense secretary and his disclosure of personal income.

*** Obama to press for universal pre-K. How will GOPers react? Taking his second trip outside of Washington after his State of the Union address, President Obama today travels to Decatur, GA, where he will tout his universal pre-K initiative in a speech he’ll deliver at 1:20 pm ET. As we wrote yesterday, many of these kinds of initiatives are potential a trap for Republicans -- they’ll oppose them on ideological grounds or as small bore, but they poll VERY well. And they immediately fell into that trap on Obama’s idea to raise the federal minimum wage. What will the GOP reaction be to this pre-K initiative? And this begs another question: What are Republicans proposing right now to help Americans at the kitchen table? We saw House Majority Eric Cantor try to present such an alternative last week. But the main GOP voices have been fixed on the deficit/debt and Hagel. Of course, the president has set his own trap of sorts with many of these ideas: The White House doesn’t seem to have a legislative strategy to get some of these proposals passed in Congress. Yes, they have a POLITICAL strategy, and for now it appears they hope somehow national popularity for an idea will translate into congressional action. Sounds like the plot to the movie “Dave” not the reality we live in here in Washington.

*** The two splits inside the GOP: Speaking of the Republican Party, we are currently seeing two different splits. The first is the establishment vs. the Tea Party. The examples here are Karl Rove vs. conservative groups, as well as Haley Barbour vs. the Club for Growth. But the second split is Washington vs. non-Washington Republicans. And the best way to illustrate this split is between Marco Rubio (Washington) and Bobby Jindal (non-Washington). As we wrote yesterday, Rubio’s State of the Union response was similar to any speech you’d hear from Mitt Romney in 2012, with the exception of Rubio’s different background and his personal story. On the other hand, Jindal has argued that his party should stop focusing so much on Washington budget battles and should instead focus on what’s taking place in the states. We single out these two Republicans because of the obvious 2016 ramifications. Both are conservatives; both appear to be what the party needs as far as looks are concerned (the party is tired of being defined as the party of white men); but both do represent two different schools of thinking of how to rebrand the party.

*** Building a better likely voter model: As our friend Elizabeth Wilner notes in the Cook Political Report, “likely voter models” for national polls didn’t have a good 2012 election cycle. In particular, they seemed to miss some Democratic-leaning Latino and 18-29 voters. So heading into future contests, how do pollsters fix things? NBC/WSJ co-pollster Bill McInturff (R) recently proposed some ideas. One, ensure that polls are surveying enough cell phone-only respondents (who made up 33% of all voters, per the 2012 exit polls). Two, make sure that self-described interest isn’t the only factor to in determining who is a likely voter; other factors need to be taken into consideration. Three, try to find ways to enable Latinos and 18-29s to qualify as likely voters. And four, in presidential years, likely voter models should shoot to have a gender breakdown of 53% female, 47% male, which it has been (more or less) in the presidential elections going back to 1992. Folks, take time and read the McInturff manifesto.

*** Don’t count on the “six-year itch”: Meanwhile, McInturff’s partner Neil Newhouse -- who served as Mitt Romney’s pollster in 2012 -- had some advice for House Republicans: Don’t count on the “six-year itch” to benefit Republicans in 2014. Roll Call: “At their first political conference meeting of the 113th Congress, held at Republican National Committee headquarters a stone’s throw from the Capitol, National Republican Congressional Committee Vice Chairman Lynn Westmoreland of Georgia and top GOP pollster Neil Newhouse told members to be on guard for Obama’s campaign machine... 'I kind of emphasized to the members that second midterm elections have never been friendly to the president,' Newhouse said in an interview. 'You can’t count on that. That’s not going to happen. We’ve got to realize that the House Republicans are going to be Obama’s top target.'"

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