WASHINGTON — Chuck Hagel, the senator from Nebraska, describes himself as a “tidal” politician, one who believes that larger forces in the society shape careers more than the ambitions of individuals.
“The only mistakes I’ve made,” he told me last week, “were when I tried to go against the tide.”
Today, that tide may be carrying him away from his Republican Party and toward a third-party or independent ticket with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg — a development that could reshape the dynamics of the 2008 presidential race.
Next month, Hagel will make a threshold decision — whether to run for a third term in the Senate. He gave me no definitive answer, but my guess is that he will say that 12 years of battling the institutional lethargy of Capitol Hill will be enough. Certainly he is under no illusions about how much he can achieve as one of 100 lawmakers.
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On the contrary, while Washington is gridlocked in partisan battle between two equally spent parties, the country is moving rapidly, he thinks, to the conclusion that neither Republicans nor Democrats have the answers to the problems people see.
The war in Iraq is the prime example, a war on which Hagel was perhaps the first prominent Republican to break with the president.
Credit problems that have shaken the mortgage markets and fed the decline in housing add to the sense of anxiety. And the abject failure of Washington to deal with the issue of illegal immigration is fueling further frustration.
The common thread to all these problems, he says, is leadership — and leadership is precisely what Bloomberg demonstrates every day as mayor of New York, following his success as a financial publisher. “A guy like Bloomberg could have deep credibility as a candidate,” Hagel said. “He’s a fresh face and a proven leader. It could be he’d release a dynamic that would be an answer for many people.”
Hagel said he and Bloomberg have “had some talks,” but that neither of them is ready at this moment to form a partnership or stake out a strategy. Like everyone else, Hagel understands that the mayor’s personal wealth would permit him to organize a campaign, starting next winter or spring, and still have time to gain ballot access in sufficient states to make him a credible national candidate. But wealth alone will not bring him within reach of 270 electoral votes, and Hagel shares the view that Bloomberg is not interested in being “a spoiler” whose only effect would be to hurt one of the major-party candidates.
So it really comes down to a question of the strength of those tidal forces moving out there in American politics. Hagel’s sense, reinforced by a recent trip to California where Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is providing a demonstration of the powerful appeal of “post-partisan” politics, is that “the tide is really moving fast.”
The imperative the public will impose on the next president, Hagel says, “is to lead the country and restore the sense of national purpose.” But the early start on campaigning for the GOP and Democratic nominations, and the prospect that the battles on one side or the other or both could continue right through next summer’s conventions, could make it harder for the survivor to be that unifying figure.
Bloomberg is, on the face of it, an implausible alternative. A lifelong Democrat — he became a Republican only to avoid running in a tough primary race for mayor and now has quit the GOP and declared himself an independent — Bloomberg has no institutional support in any camp. As a divorced Jewish city guy, his appeal to the South, the Midwest and rural areas is questionable.
Hagel is, on the surface, a much more conventional politician. A Vietnam vet, a businessman and a career Republican from the Midwest, he is as mainstream in manner as can be imagined. But he has gone his own way, not just on Iraq but in supporting a comprehensive balanced approach to immigration and on other contentious social issues.
John Kennedy liked to say a rising tide lifts all boats. The Bloomberg-Hagel pairing would test that proposition.
David Broder’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .
Washington Post Writers Group