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Chuck Hagel Courageously Takes on Shoe Salesmen

By Mark Lasswell

The Senate may or may not begin debate shortly on two nonbinding resolutions critical of President Bush's decision to increase the troop level in Iraq. One of the resolutions would amount to a no-confidence vote, the other a not-much-confidence vote. But both are essentially a do-over for senators who rue their support for the 2002 joint resolution authorizing the use of military force in Iraq.

Regardless of whether a Senate vote takes place--Republicans may throw a last-minute wrench in the works--plenty of legislators will be competing in a sound-bite competition in the coming days. But for hot-eyed bombast on the subject, the bar may have already been set impossibly high by Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Republican from Nebraska and one of the authors of the harsher of the two resolutions.

Washington is a city of many diversions, but very little surpasses the pure entertainment value of watching a senator--media chatter about his potential attractiveness as a presidential prospect ringing in his ears--commandeer the microphone during a committee meeting and then posture in a most forceful and statesmanlike way for the television cameras. Sen. Hagel did not disappoint last week. As the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations prepared to vote on the resolution expressing outright opposition to the increase in troops, Sen. Hagel, a longstanding critic of the war, was in ultra-dudgeon about what he apparently regards as an insufficient amount of Capitol Hill kibitzing on the president's conduct of the war.

"I think all 100 senators ought to be on the line" by having to make a "tough vote" on the troop increase, Sen. Hagel said. In a bit of bullying that instantly became the TV quote of the day, he then appeared to call out an unspecified number of his honorable colleagues as cowards: "If you wanted a safe job, go sell shoes."

Now, this seemed like a low blow--against shoe-store employees. Surely Sen. Hagel was not suggesting that selling shoes is physically safer than serving in the Senate. In the past two months alone, according to police reports, robbers have struck several shoe stores across the country. A Payless ShoeSource store in Philadelphia was held up on Jan. 16. At another Payless, in Palm Bay, Fla., near Melbourne, a man with a knife robbed the store on Dec. 26 and then demanded a kiss from a female clerk, police said. (Reader, she kissed him.) At the Boynton Beach Mall in Florida on Christmas Eve, according to police, a gang confrontation in a shoe store turned violent, leaving one victim dead from a gunshot wound. On Dec. 10 at the Shoe Biz store in South Bend, Ind., a man posing as a customer asked about children's shoes and then threatened to "get violent" unless he was given money. An employee handed over the store's cash; the man also stole her cellphone. On and on the police blotter goes.

Of course, robbery is commonplace on Capitol Hill, but the perps' preferred weapon of choice is the earmark. As for staying out of harm's way, selling shoes, compared with serving on Capitol Hill, is the equivalent of working the late shift at a package-liquor store. No, Sen. Hagel's "If you wanted a safe job" jibe must have been referring to employment security, but that assertion is just as puzzling.

Incumbency is not a bad thing--term limits and campaign-finance restrictions are intrinsically antidemocratic measures--but it's a bit rich to hear someone who was elected in 1996 and who has come up for a job-performance review by Nebraska voters precisely once in the past decade roaring about the relative career risks of drawing a Senate salary or working for Payless. According to the Census Bureau's economic statistics, between 1992 and 2004, the number of shoe stores in this country declined to 27,253, from 37,206.

As for the Senate jobs that Sen. Hagel imagines are imperiled by strong stances on the war, sure, the reshuffling in November probably did include the turning out of a few senators who were being punished for supporting the war. Or for their views on illegal immigration or for any number of other reasons--divining voters' motivations is tricky. Quite possibly the specter of being routed from office in the next election has made some senators more circumspect about the war nowadays. Then again, unlike Sen. Hagel, who voted for the resolution supporting the president's action in Iraq in 2002 before he began assailing the war's prosecution, perhaps many of his colleagues are content to let their votes back then speak for themselves.

It's not clear precisely what the point would be of a resolution opposing the troop increase, other than letting legislators flatter themselves with the notion that they have some influence over the president's war-making strategy. Conducting a periodic opinion poll on Capitol Hill (for that's what nonbinding resolutions are) might be useful. Certainly historians would wish that during the Civil War the Senate had taken its temperature every few months regarding President Lincoln's prosecution of the war. Might have been interesting to compare their vacillations with his single-mindedness.

But then as now, senators will find a way to make their views known. One of Sen. Hagel's neighbors from out West, for instance, Sen. Mike Enzi, a Wyoming Republican, voted for the resolution on Iraq in 2002 and doesn't need to be dared to express his support for the president's war policy in 2007. The senator simply posts it on his Web site: "President Bush is making strategy adjustments in order to improve stability. We're not talking about just Iraq here. We are trying to prevent a catastrophic blowup that would not only be traumatic for the Middle East, but would send reverberations throughout the world." As it happens, before Sen. Enzi got started in politics, he was a small-business owner with stores in Wyoming and eventually one over in Sen. Hagel's home state. What sort of business? Selling shoes.

Mr. Lasswell is deputy books editor at The Wall Street Journal.

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