Former Senator Chuck Hagel(Getty)

Is anyone wistful for the days when character assassinations were carried out so swiftly that we didn’t have time to think about them? Well those days are gone and the struggle over the idea of nominating Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense has outlasted so many media cycles that the very fabric of society is beginning to unravel.

Two examples came up today, weeks after the nomination furor first began. In the Times this morning, James Besser–a former correspondent for The Jewish Week–used the opinion pages to malign people for attacking Hagel. Calling these critics “pro-Israel extremists,” Besser, who was not without a few valid points, still managed to liken Hagel’s opponents to the NRA.

Judging from the National Rifle Association’s clumsy news conference last week, the gun-rights lobby may be nearing a similar public relations cliff. By playing to zealots who reject any government restrictions on firearms, they are not lobbying for the right of hunters to keep their deer rifles, or homeowners to keep their revolvers; they are arguing for the right of anybody, including the most demented people, to own the most lethal firearms, and making the absurd claim that the more Americans who are armed, the safer we will be. As a result, the N.R.A. may soon see its support evaporate among those in the persuadable (and reasonable) middle.

Playing to the extremist fringe could produce short-term gains for pro-Israel groups by rallying the faithful and encouraging big contributions. But—as this year’s election and rising anti-gun sentiment demonstrates—it brings with it the risk of a popular backlash.

The op-ed made the rounds. The American Jewish Committee condemned the screed after coming under attack from Besser. On the other side was J Street, which included Besser’s piece in a fundraising e-mail it sent out in which it echoed Besser’s criticism of the paranoid tone some are taking about Hagel’s imaginary nomination.

Just like criticism of Hagel is warranted, criticism of Hagel’s critics–when properly administered–is also completely warranted. Writing today for The Cable, Foreign Policy‘s Josh Rogin points out how some Republican senators, who once seemed openly in love with Hagel as recently as 2008, are now taking aim at him, even though he’s been out of office since then and has not cast a vote to sully his record.

To “allege that Hagel is somehow a Republican — that is a hard one to swallow,” Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) said last week, criticizing Hagel’s long-ago reference to a “Jewish lobby” and his record on Iran sanctions.

That’s quite a change from the sentiments McCain and his GOP Senate colleagues expressed about Hagel the last time his name was mentioned for high office, when he resigned from the Senate in 2008. At that time, presidential candidate McCain said he and Hagel were “close and dear friends” and that Hagel could have a place in a McCain administration.

“I’d be honored to have Chuck with me in any capacity,” McCain told the New York Times in 2006. “He’d make a great secretary of state.”

In the summer of 2008, Hagel traveled with then candidate Obama and Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI) on a trip to Iraq, and rumors swirled that Obama might choose Hagel as his running mate. McCain was all for the idea.

“I don’t know anything about that,” McCain said about the idea of Obama picking Hagel for vice president, “except to say Chuck Hagel is a distinguished veteran and a very dear and close friend of mine and I cherish his friendship and have for many, many years.”

Word on the street is that President Obama may name his nominee for defense secretary as early as tomorrow. Let’s hope he does, otherwise we might not make it to 2013.

Earlier: Imagining Hagel as Secretary of Defense
Don’t Let Pro-Israel Extremist Sink Hagel [NYT]
AJC Response to James Besser [AJC]
Republican Senators Were for Hagel Before They Were Against Him [FP]