I have to wonder: Does Chuck Hagel still cuddle up at night in his bed and dream about running the country in 20 months?
No, really. He does. If he'd already faced up to reality, we would have gotten a flat-out "no" from the good senator on Monday.
Going into Hagel's jerk-around press conference, his nationwide numbers were hovering around one percent. He has no exploratory committee. He has no support in New Hampshire. The little support he's scraped together in Iowa is just fallout from midwest solidarity against the coasts (most of the GOP primary voters out here just sort of assume that "Tribeca" is a sexually transmitted infection and that San Francisco has its own gay militia).
The rest of the country either doesn't know Hagel from the local plumber, or they do know Hagel and they're part of the angry cadre of morons who will never "waver" in their support for the Iraq mess. To them, Hagel might as well be Nancy Pelosi.
When he woke up on Monday morning, Hagel did still have the committed interest of one important demographic: The drunken, riotous scoundrels who pump out political yellow journalism for America's op-ed pages. We loved Hagel's story.
His maneuvering, his ability to garner the hatred of Republicans and the love of the anti-war left while continuing to amass one of the Senate's most conservative voting records was complex and new. His fiery antics already fuel all sorts of fun commentary, but a presidential run by Hagel would give the press a whole new playbook. Even if he fared poorly, Hagel would be a suitable diversion until Rudy Guiliani's ex-wives start showing up on television.
The press is Hagel's last hope. And what did he do? He set us up and knocked us down.
No one's been very forgiving. The Lincoln Journal Star put together a helpful compilation of anti-Hagel words this morning probably the best of which comes all the way from the London Times: "A damp-squid declaration," they called it.
Damp squid or not, Hagel sees himself as such a maverick that the press can just be an afterthought, and he gives his simplistic presidential strategy much too much credit. He's just going to wait and see how the Iraq war - his only real issue - shapes up before making the decision to run. The Hagel candidacy will be about nothing but the war.
If some semblance of order is developed in Iraq, Hagel's argument will be moot and he'll just go back to the Senate. Thing is, this is an impossible scenario, and Chuck knows it.
As most of the country is coming to realize, the American mission in Iraq cannot be "won" by virtue of the fact that it isn't even a war. There can be no happy ending, only a mediocre withdrawal and a declaration of success. As more and more people come to the (correct) conclusion that the president is either unequivocally set in being wrong or batshit insane, Hagel will undoubtedly assume that his platform is shaping up.
He'll think that maybe, just maybe, GOP anti-war sentiments can pull him out of the one-percent barrel and catapult him into some sort of romantic darkhorse status.
And he'll run.
And he'll be completely neutralized in the Republican primary by a whole array of wishy-washy rhetoric from John McCain and Rudy Giuliani. Their rhetoric, of course, will make no sense to anyone but the craziest of crazy GOP voters - the people who show up on primary day - but mediocre assurances will make a lot more sense to those voters than Hagel's argument that we should just be happy to get the hell out of Iraq.
Final verdict: Monday was the time to do it. He didn't do it. Chuck Hagel has built himself a nice little house in Presidential Never-Never Land, and he's not coming back.