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Hagel vs. Mentor: The Iraq War Debate

The entire political landscape of the Iraq war, its implications on Capitol Hill and its potential impact on the 2008 presidential campaign, played out, of all places, in yesterday's editorial pages of the Omaha World-Herald.

Sens. Chuck Hagel (R) and Ben Nelson (D), the two Nebraskans who flipped their votes on a withdrawal timeline for the Iraq war and secured passage of the plan Wednesday, wrote an op-ed in their state's largest paper yesterday explaining their reversals by saying the "status quo in Iraq is unacceptable."

But those votes didn't sit well with the World-Herald, which editorialized that the Hagel-Nelson decision was "honorable and legitimate" but wrong headed, urging President George W. Bush to cast "a necessary veto" of the $122 billion supplemental spending bill for Iraq.

If that wasn't enough, Hagel's mentor wrote a letter to the editor to the newspaper calling votes supporting withdrawal a "tragic mistake".

"Unfortunately, the votes will strengthen our enemies and dishearten our soldiers," former Rep. John McCollister (R-Neb.) wrote, adding later, "Given the president's certain veto, why do many senators and representatives send this defeatist message to the enemy and to U.S. armed forces, thus risking their lives?"

Just two-and-a-half weeks ago, McCollister sat in the front row of a packed auditorium in the University of Nebraska-Omaha as his former chief of staff , Hagel, announced that he had not yet decided to run for president in 2008 as an anti-war Republican. Hagel began his non-announcement by serenading McCollister as "the finest public servant that I have ever known", the man responsible "for the shaping and molding of my career."

Sen. Chuck Hagel
Sen. Chuck Hagel

But yesterday, without naming Hagel or Nelson, McCollister blasted those who voted with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Wednesday, against an amendment that would have stripped the deadline language from the supplemental bill. "I believe that some people disregard the awful consequences of a premature withdrawal," he wrote.

Such harsh language from McCollister demonstrates, in all too personal a way, how difficult a road Hagel will be walking if he runs for the Republican nomination in 2008. His former boss' words would no doubt be trotted out by Hagel's potential opponents to attack his anti-war position in an effort to ward off conservatives from backing Hagel. This is part of the reason why some have speculated that Hagel would instead try to run as an independent, as The Fix recently noted.

Hagel has acknowledged that McCollister doesn't always agree with him, joking about it in his March 12 press conference in Omaha. "Occasionally I know, within your sense of evaluation, I get off-track. But nonetheless, you don't have to agree publicly with that, John," Hagel said to laughter.

But Hagel has become somewhat imbued to criticism from onetime allies, especially since his best friend in the Senate has been Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a fellow Vietnam war veteran who is now the biggest proponent of Bush's Iraq strategy.

Things have gotten so mixed up, politically, that Hagel has now found a close ally in Nelson. Longtime rivals since their bitter campaign in 1996 -- Hagel defeated Nelson, who was then the governor -- the duo have publicly and privately jousted since Nelson won his Senate seat in 2000, making their co-byline on an op-ed remarkable in its own right.

(Check out Capitol Briefing's colleague The Sleuth for her take on the rivalry.

Twelve days before Wednesday's vote on withdrawal, Hagel and Nelson sided with Bush on a similar withdrawal vote, only to switch sides this week. While their switch is not determinative ultimately for the withdrawal plan -- Reid is far short of the two-thirds majority he'd need to override Bush's veto -- Hagel and Nelson together symbolically shifted the nature of the debate in the weeks ahead.

"There will be no military solution in Iraq," the senators wrote yesterday. "That reality must guide our thinking. The status quo is unacceptable. We will vote for change."

By Paul Kane  |  March 30, 2007; 2:38 PM ET
Categories:  Iraq  
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