Bill Hagerty embraces diplomatic roots: ‘I’m gonna be here longer than Joe Biden’

After Tennessee lost two influential GOP powerhouses in Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker — whose back-to-back retirements robbed Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of a consigliere and the Foreign Relations Committee of its top Republican — Hagerty is zeroing in on foreign affairs to make his mark. He’s mixing it up by backing some of Biden’s more polarizing nominees while consistently voting alongside other conservatives on most Senate business.

“A United States senator has a term that’s longer than the president of the United States — is not term-limited. A United States senator has the ability to think on a long-term basis, on a strategic basis. And that’s exactly what I came here to do,” Hagerty said during a half-hour interview in his Capitol Hill office that was once occupied by then-Sen. Lyndon Baines Johnson.

It’s something of a statement on the state of the modern GOP that Hagerty stands out within it, even while taking Biden to task over the messy U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, his failure to impose sanctions on a Russian pipeline and his posture toward China. But he’s still an outlier in a party generally inclined to yield the bluntest political instruments against Biden: Hagerty has called Biden’s trade chief a “bright spot” and praised the new U.S.-U.K.-Australia submarine deal, which he said strengthened the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue in the Indo-Pacific. That’s on top of his rescuing of the nomination of Rahm Emanuel, the longtime Democratic lawmaker and mayor who attracted opposition on the left.

“I’ve been willing to applaud them and be supportive where I think they’re moving in the right direction,” Hagerty said. “But, at the same time, I’m going to be very clear to call them out when they move in the opposite direction.”

It’s rare for a first-term senator to focus so deliberately on foreign affairs — an arena on Capitol Hill long dominated by old bulls who tend to outlast presidents and adhere to the famous phrase “politics stops at the water’s edge,” the idea that domestic political concerns shouldn’t cloud foreign dealings. Foreign affairs is also a policy area where the loudest partisans are less effective and the spotlight shines the least, which means ambitious freshman lawmakers often shun it.

While Emanuel was facing backlash from liberals over his record as mayor of Chicago, Hagerty vigorously defended him and went as far as to introduce the longtime Democrat at his confirmation hearing. The 62-year-old conservative said he and Emanuel “saw eye-to-eye on the threat that China poses” and “the critical role that Japan can play there.”

“I would be surprised if there were a single issue on the domestic policy front that Rahm Emanuel and I would agree upon,” Hagerty quipped. “[But] I thought it was important that the people of Japan — and frankly that China, North Korea and anybody else that might be watching as well … they needed to see that there is strong bipartisan support for the U.S. ambassador to Japan.”

Hagerty’s opposition to major Biden foreign policy initiatives stands notably to the right of Corker, who often acted as a GOP bellwether on key foreign-affairs questions throughout his two terms in the upper chamber. For example, Corker led the charge to give the Senate a vote on then-President Barack Obama’s 2015 nuclear deal with Iran; Hagerty’s national security adviser, Robert Zarate, is a longtime Senate foreign policy hand who helped marshal GOP opposition to that deal.

Indeed, unlike Corker, who spent the tail end of his career speaking out against the former president, Hagerty is as pro-Trump as they come. When he came into office in January, Hagerty hired several former Trump White House aides to staff his D.C. office. And throughout his short Senate tenure, Hagerty has hyped Trump foreign policy — on everything from his “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran to his efforts to crack down on China.

“President Trump has a long list of foreign policy achievements that not only he should be proud of, but advanced America’s interests in a positive way,” Hagerty said, bouncing from subject to subject with ease. “You talk about the predatory posture of China — President Trump called that out.”

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), who serves with Hagerty on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, enthusiastically backed Hagerty’s nomination for ambassador to Japan in 2017, and now co-leads the panel’s State Department subcommittee alongside Hagerty. Cardin said Hagerty is on his way to reclaiming the state’s traditional firepower in foreign policy, but hailed Corker as a more independent voice on the world stage.

“Each person’s unique — Bob Corker is a dear friend, he really created an incredible knowledge base and reputation in foreign policy,” Cardin said in a brief interview. “Sen. Hagerty’s just starting out, but he is very serious about foreign policy.”

Hagerty was the Trump campaign’s 2016 chair in Tennessee, and later served as the director of presidential appointments on the Trump transition team. Before that, he led Tennessee’s economic development department and served as finance chief for Mitt Romney’s 2008 presidential campaign. He previously worked in private equity at Boston Consulting Group, a tenure that included a three-year stint in Tokyo, and speaks conversational Japanese.

“[Hagerty] has the right temperament — not just to represent us on the diplomatic stage, but also to work with colleagues, to talk through issues in which there exists a principled disagreement,” said Indiana Sen. Todd Young, who chaired the Senate GOP campaign arm the year Hagerty was elected and has disagreed with him on war-powers issues.

But Hagerty’s efforts have extended well beyond the walls of the Foreign Relations Committee’s meeting space on Capitol Hill.

After Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, Hagerty flew to London and Brussels to meet with his parliamentary counterparts and reinforce allied cooperation on the security situation. His message?

“I’m gonna be here longer than Joe Biden, and we need to work together because the threat has escalated now,” Hagerty said, recounting his conversations.

He has also sought accountability through other means. After seeing other nations sack leaders responsible for the Afghanistan debacle, Hagerty asked Secretary of State Antony Blinken — whose nomination he supported — at a public hearing if he had offered his resignation to the president.

His conservative allies have adopted other tactics to force action, such as holding up State Department and Pentagon nominees until their demands are met. Hagerty doesn’t operate that way. Instead, he’s emerging as a foreign-policy foil to Biden.

After Israel and Hamas militants were engaged in a violent shooting war earlier this year, Hagerty flew to Israel as a show of support for the U.S. ally, believing that Biden and other Democrats weren’t sufficiently backing the Israeli government’s response to Hamas rockets.

It was an unusual step by a member of Congress, one influenced by his diplomatic experience.

“The messages that have been coming out of the Biden administration have required me, from time to time, to upend what’s happening here, get on a plane and go do what I’ve learned to do as a businessperson and as a diplomat,” Hagerty said. “And that is to step up, face the problem head-on, find pragmatic solutions and let them know that you’re here and willing to work.”

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