By Gordon Lubold
He walked into the hearing room with a slew of defense officials and supporters behind him and, in the words of one official that morning, was "ready to go."
But many Republicans, and even some supporters, privately believe Chuck Hagel blew his confirmation hearing. Beyond the political theater and the aggressive questioning by senators like Arizona Republican John McCain, they point to a failure to prepare for the moment. They think Hagel, or his prep staff, missed obvious political cues like the likelihood of McCain's attacks over Iraq, or Sen. Lindsey Graham's questioning on Israel. And at one point, it seemed as if he didn't understand White House policy on Iran.
Insiders were quick to blame Hagel's preppers for focusing on the wrong things, not covering enough of the right ones, and being tone deaf to the political terrain Hagel was navigating.
But others blame the man himself, who reportedly prepared from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. every night in a borrowed Pentagon office on the E-Ring. In fact, as well schooled as he could have been, he may have had difficulty adapting from the self-assuredness of the senator he once was to the requirements of the poised nominee he needed to be.
"It's about getting confirmed," said one former administration official familiar with prepping officials for Hill testimony. "It's not about impressing them with your knowledge, it's about living to fight another day."
In that regard, Hagel probably did fine. Ultimately, he will likely be confirmed and Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said the panel might vote next week. But if so, he may be approved with a thinner margin than what he could have enjoyed, and he'll enter the Pentagon seen as facing a steep learning curve. His controversial nomination -- and now confirmation hearing -- will leave him weaker than predecessors like Leon Panetta or Bob Gates once they got into office.
"How could he be so ill prepared?" asked one Hill staffer with expertise in foreign affairs who was puzzled by Hagel's performance. "It's really baffling to me."
Those in the Hagel camp, of course, believe their man did a good job.
"Senator Hagel revealed a deep and nuanced command of the issues and honesty in addressing some of the misunderstandings about previous statements, while showing that he is in sync with President Obama on defense matters, " said Andrew Parasiliti, a former foreign policy advisor to Hagel who is now editor of Al-Monitor.
Political operatives, supporters and others all acknowledge Hagel had a lot to learn in a short amount of time. Although speculation that he'd be nominated went on for weeks, the White House didn't put his name forward formally until Jan. 7. That gave him less than a month to prepare to lead an agency with more than a $600 billion budget, about 3 million employees, and operations around the globe.
Hagel had what was thought to be a strong team preparing him for battle on the Hill, including Liz King, assistant secretary of defense for legislative affairs, who worked for Gates and then Panetta. She's considered someone who knows the Hill inside and out and would take an airtight approach to prep. "She knows what each member is going to ask, she knows the committee very well," said the former administration official. But she's also known for having a low-key, non-argumentative manner, handling internal divisions with a calm demeanor in what is a decidedly alpha-male environment. That low-key approach may open her up to criticism of not being tough enough when it counts, said the former official.
Some observers speculated Hagel possesses a kind of arrogance that may have contributed to the lackluster performance and as a result, may have shrugged off any extra prep the team around him was prepared to give.
Indeed, it may be difficult for the hunter to become the hunted. As a senator, Hagel was used to sitting on the dais, staring down at government officials testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and asking the tough questions. He had never played the opposing player. Hillary Clinton was seen as a master of discipline, moving smoothly from the dais to the confirmation table when she became secretary of state. And John Kerry, sworn in Friday as secretary of state, was so well versed in diplomatic issues as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee that he couldn't help but be embraced by his former colleagues.
Time will tell for Hagel. Some insiders who thought the hearing didn't go well for him likened it to the infamous first presidential debate between President Obama and Republican rival Mitt Romney, a contest that most agreed Obama failed miserably. (His prepper? Ironically, given his smooth sail to confirmation last week, Kerry.) But there's a difference. If Hagel failed Thursday's hearing, he won't get any more chances.
"Hagel's not going to get two more opportunities like Obama," said the Hill staffer.