Chuck Hagel is quickly becoming Barack Obama's answer to Joe Lieberman.
The Republican Senator from Nebraska was a political thorn in McCain's side on Tuesday night, repeatedly lavishing praise on the presumptive Democratic candidate and levying major foreign policy criticisms at the GOP nominee and the Republican Party as a whole. At one point, Hagel even urged the Arizona Republican to elevate his campaign discourse to a higher, more honest level.
"We know from past campaigns that presidential candidates will say many things," Hagel said of some of McCain's recent rhetoric, namely his policy on talking to Iran. "But once they have the responsibility to govern the country and lead the world, that difference between what they said and what responsibilities they have to fulfill are vastly different. I'm very upset with John with some of the things he's been saying. And I can't get into the psychoanalysis of it. But I believe that John is smarter than some of the things he is saying. He is, he understands it more. John is a man who reads a lot, he's been around the world. I want him to get above that and maybe when he gets into the general election, and becomes the general election candidate he will have a higher-level discourse on these things."
Hagel, speaking to a small gathering at the residence of the Italian ambassador, took umbrage with several positions taken by the McCain campaign, including the Arizona Senator's criticism of Obama for pledging to engage with Iran. Engagement is not, and should not be confused for, capitulation, he argued.
"I never understand how anyone in any realm of civilized discourse could sort through the big issues and challenges and threats and figure out how to deal with those without engaging in some way...."
Hagel then offered a wry tweak of his GOP colleague. "I am confident that if Obama is elected president that is the approach we will take. And my friend John McCain said some other things about that. We'll see, but in my opinion it has to be done. It is essential."
Hagel, who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, went on to belittle the tendency for some within his own party to disparage those who tout diplomacy. "You take some risks in talking about this," he said, "especially in the Congress, because you can immediately be branded as an appeaser."
And when asked to respond to rumors circulating within political circles that the Bush administration was ginning up the possibility of war with Iran, the Senator even raised the specter of impeachment.
"You've got the power of impeachment, now that is a very defined measure if you are willing to bring charges against the president at all. You can't just say I disagree with him, let's impeach him," said Hagel. An attack on Iran without Congress' consent, he added, "would bring with it... outstanding political consequences, including for the Republican Party."
Finally, he charged that if the preeminent foreign policy objective is to achieve security in Israel and stability within the broader Middle East, then the Bush track -- which McCain has endorsed -- is ill-advised.
"If you engage a world power or a rival, it doesn't mean you agree with them or subscribe with what they believe or you support them in any way," he said. "What it does tell you is that you've got a problem you need to resolve. And you've got to understand the other side and the other side has got to understand you."
Much of Hagel's address, hosted by the Ploughshares Fund, was spent weaving between Obama praise and McCain quips. He urged the media, for example, to focus on important policy issues an "not just why Barack [doesn't] wear flag pins on his lapel."
Asked whether he would be open to serving as Secretary of Defense in a hypothetical Obama administration, Hagel demurred. But in the process, he praised the Illinois Democrat for being open to a bipartisan cabinet.
"Take me out of the equation," he said, "I do think that the next president and Obama has talked about this, and McCain not as much, I think he is going to have to put together a very wide, smart, experienced, credible, bipartisan cabinet. And that is going to be required absolutely."