In the 1990s, Senators Chuck Hagel and John McCain were close friends. Yesterday, Sen. McCain badgered Hagel during his confirmation hearing. At issue was a primary focal point of the conservative worldview. (More)

Hagel and McCain: BFFs split over BFM

At first glance, Sen. John McCain hectoring Chuck Hagel yesterday seems unrelated to Tennessee state senator Stacey Campfield’s bill to cut welfare assistance for families whose children get poor grades in school. John McCain is a senior U.S. Senator, the Republican Party’s 2008 presidential candidate, and a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee that will decide whether to send Hagel’s nomination for Secretary of Defense to the full Senate. Senator Campfield is a junior state senator with a record of failed bills whose principle intent seems to be garnering media attention.

Yet at the core, both Sens. McCain and Campfield are focused on the same approach to problem solving. Call it the Brute Force Method.

“Were you correct or incorrect, yes or no?”

Senator McCain asked that question of Hagel several times yesterday. In the 1990s, the two were close friends. Then-Senator Hagel supported Sen. McCain during the 2000 Republican presidential primaries, and Sen. McCain even mentioned Hagel as a possible nominee for Secretary of Defense.

But eight years later, the bloom had faded. Hagel’s wife Lilibet endorsed Barack Obama in the 2008 election. Hagel never officially endorsed either candidate in 2008, but he often spoke in Obama’s defense. In fact, Hagel and Obama forged a bond over the Iraq War … the same issue on which Sen. McCain attacked Hagel yesterday:

“… after you hit the mailbox.”

I was 17 and still an inexperienced driver when I scraped the side of the car on a mailbox beside the road. I was driving a friend home and was focused more on the high school play rehearsal we’d just left than what was happening on the road. I didn’t realize I was drifting toward the curb until I heard the screech of metal on metal. A homeowner had left a mailbox open and, as I discovered when I parked, the tab at the top of the mailbox door had dug an 11-inch scratch in my car’s already-decrepit paint job. The homeowner wasn’t too upset, as I hadn’t damaged his mailbox. He even apologized for leaving it open, probably more to calm a teen’s tears than because he thought he was responsible.

By the time we got to my friend’s house, I had done the math. I had been driving at 20mph, which worked out to 29.3 feet per second. The scratch was 11 inches long. Thus, I had reacted and steered away from the mailbox in 1/30th of a second, which I thought impressive enough to mention to my friend’s father when I dropped her off.

He was somewhat less impressed, saying: “I guess you did okay … after you hit the mailbox.”

Senator McCain, like me at age 17, demanded accolades for the 2006 ‘surge’ in Iraq. Hagel, like my friend’s father, refused to praise the ‘surge’ response, which Sen. McCain supported then and defends still. Because Hagel recognizes that the Iraq War – which Sen. McCain supported then and defends still – was a mistake that should never have happened.

“We need to do something to motivate these parents….”

Tennessee state senator Stacey Campfield insists he means well with a bill that threatens to cut welfare payments to families whose children do poorly in school:

We need to do something to motivate these parents to see how important an education is, and unfortunately, the only tool we have left is this cash payment that we make to these families.

The problem, as Sen. Campfield sees it, is that too many poor parents don’t pay sufficient attention to their children’s education, thus breeding “generational poverty.” The solution, as Sen. Campfield sees it, is to make those parents even poorer unless their children show satisfactory academic performance:

Like I said, I don’t want these kids to be rocket scientists. I don’t want them to split the atom. Listen, passing a grade is not too high a standard. To say, ‘Listen, if your kid shows up at school at 11 o’clock in your pajamas, that kid is not ready for school.’ Families have to take a responsibility for having the kids prepared to go to school.

Note that Sen. Campfield does not offer any incentive for poor parents whose children do well in school, despite his citing grade incentive programs in other countries. He simply turns those programs upside down … denying the carrot while wielding the stick.

“Get a Bigger Hammer”

And denying incentives while threatening punishment – at least for Those People – is a focal point of the conservative worldview. Consider what a McCain aide told the Washington Post‘s Chris Cillizza:

Quite simply, the split began over the length and cost of the Iraq war and Hagel’s decision to not support the surge, which John took as a personal insult.

This was no mere disagreement over policy. Senator McCain, like many Republicans, sees Hagel as a traitor to the conservative worldview. Call it The Brute Force Method: “If it doesn’t fit, get a hammer. If it still doesn’t fit, get a bigger hammer.”

Senator McCain – who infamously sang “Bomb, Bomb, Iran” in 2008 – believes in using force to solve problems. And if that fails, as it did disastrously in Iraq … the solution is to use more force.

In the conservative worldview, the 2006 surge proves that the problem in Iraq was not invading a country on false pretenses … but invading without a big enough hammer to smash the enemy.

Chuck Hagel rejected that worldview, and that’s exactly why President Obama nominated him for Secretary of Defense.

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Happy Friday!