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Sen. Rand Paul's puzzling vote for Chuck Hagel: Smart politics?

The Week
Sen. Paul says he voted to confirm Hagel after supporting the filibuster because it's the president's prerogative to choose appointees.
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Sen. Paul says he voted to confirm Hagel after supporting the filibuster because it's the president's prerogative to choose appointees.

The Kentucky Republican was the only senator to vote for both the Hagel filibuster and his confirmation

And so the epic battle over Chuck Hagel's nomination to become defense secretary ended with a whimper, not a bang. The Senate easily confirmed the former Republican senator from Nebraska on Tuesday, 58 to 41, with four Republicans joining all present Democrats. That was still by far the least amount of support a successful defense secretary nominee has received since at least the Carter administration, and confirmation came only after one successful GOP filibuster and, on Tuesday, an unsuccessful follow-up. For anyone who's been paying attention to the Hagel drama for the past few weeks, the outcome was no surprise.

Spectators may have noticed one unexpected wrinkle to the Hagel denouement, however: Sen. Rand Paul. Fifteen Republicans voted on Tuesday morning to end the filibuster against Hagel but then went on to oppose his confirmation. Only one, the junior senator from Kentucky, voted the other way: Paul was one of the 27 Republicans who voted to continue the filibuster, but then he surprised just about everyone by joining the "aye" Republicans — Thad Cochran (Miss.), Mike Johanns (Neb.), and Richard Shelby (Ala.) — for the final vote.

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How unexpected was Paul's U-turn on Hagel? Paul had been a vocal supporter of the Feb. 14 filibuster, and after his vote Tuesday to continue blocking a vote, the anti-Hagelian forces rushed to embrace him — and some on the libertarian right felt compelled to jump in to defend Paul to the conservative foreign policy "realists" who backed his father, former Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), and appreciate Hagel's skepticism on foreign interventions. Among the former group, William Kristol's Emergency Committee for Israel congratulated Paul for "a pro-Israel vote today," while The Washington Post's resident Hagel-basher, blogger Jennifer Rubin, included Paul among the "principled and savvy hawks who understand that reality (keeping Hagel out of the Pentagon) trumps Senate 'comity.'"

I'm not going to agree with Rand Paul on a lot of national security issues, I suspect, but he was there for the decisive vote before the recess and there again today. He earned himself some credibility and dealt a blow to those who would write him off merely because of his father's record. [Washington Post]

Paul has a ready explanation for his puzzling votes: He supported the filibuster, he told reporters after Hagel was confirmed, "because I wanted more information and I think that part of what the Senate does is try to get information about the nominees." He voted to confirm Hagel because "I've said all along that I give the president some prerogative in choosing his political appointees." In other words, it's about the principle, not the man. "There are many things I disagree with Chuck Hagel on, there are many things I disagree with John Kerry on, there are very few things I agree with the president on, but the president gets to choose political appointees."

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The end result, though, is that nobody is completely happy with him. The Emergency Committee for Israel yanked back its tentative high-five, and Paul only partly mended his bridges to his father's disenchanted fan base. Paul's ultimate support for Hagel was "the outcome that I and a lot of other antiwar conservatives and libertarians were hoping for, but it makes the previous votes even harder to understand," says Daniel Larison at The American Conservative. Hagel was one vote shy of being confirmed before the Senate took a recess, so "Paul was in a position almost two weeks ago to bring debate on the nomination to an end. He didn't do that."

This afternoon's vote should help reduce the damage that Sen. Paul has done with potential supporters over the last two months. That said, I don't think the initial negative reactions to his votes against cloture, including mine, were ill-considered or unreasonable.... Whatever Sen. Paul was trying to do with these different votes, it resulted in avoidable confusion.... In the end, Paul ignored the hard-line ideological enforcers in his party that never wanted him in office in the first place, and he did so knowing that many of them will seek to do to him what they just tried to do to Hagel. As discouraging as some of Sen. Paul's positions have been this year, today's yes vote on Hagel was an admirable one. [American Conservative]

Salon's Alex Pareene puts Paul's against-it-before-he-was-for-it votes a little less charitably:

Kudos too to Rand Paul for finding exciting new ways to prove that being a senator is just about constant pointless grandstanding

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— Alex Pareene (@pareene) February 26, 2013

Whether or not he got the political calculus right here, Paul's mixed message on Hagel is part of his larger challenge to make himself into what The Week's Matt Lewis calls "a younger, saner, more broadly appealing Ron Paul." If Rand Paul, like his father, is going to make a run for the White House — as everybody seems to assume he will — he needs to "solidify his father's libertarian-leaning support, sprinkle in some mainstream conservative backers (folks his dad could never reach), and — voila! — he will have assembled a 'libertarian-Republican' coalition capable of winning a decent slice of the primary electorate." That's much harder than it sounds.

On the heels of his Tea Party response to the State of the Union, it has become fashionable for pundits to announce that Rand Paul has a real shot at the nomination. But this doesn't appreciate the difficult maneuver Paul is attempting. And it will only get harder once conservatives view him as a threat. Like a Rubik's cube, every move Rand makes in order to please one side or constituency has the potential to anger the other side. And the worst-case scenario is that he leaves everyone dissatisfied. [The Week]

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