If, before an exam, you gave a student the questions and plenty of time to research and memorize the answers, you couldn't be faulted if you failed him when he performed inadequately. In Chuck Hagel's case, he may still pass, but it will be a close thing, and he won't become Secretary of Defense because he did well in the exam.
Even in an era of partisan antagonism, most appointees survive the confirmation process. John Kerry, himself a polarizing figure, won easy confirmation to be Secretary of State and garnered only three negative votes in the Senate. Usually, the White House selects candidates with care, confers with Senate leaders extensively before the hearing, and makes certain of success by preparing the appointee with briefings and practice sessions. None of this helped Hagel.
Part of his problem was that he faced the antagonism of people who don't like him very much, not uncommon in a town in which any real or imagined slight is highly magnified by the political stakes. John McCain's ire is partially the result of Hagel's refusal to support him in 2008, and the tenor of the opening questions set the tone for the rest of the hearing. Hagel stumbled from the very beginning and never recovered.
Another reason for Hagel's distressingly flaccid performance is that he handled himself very badly. He seemed unprepared, and almost unconcerned that he was unprepared. Having been on the other side of the table many times before, he knew exactly what to expect: that he would get contentious and leading questions from people opposed to him, and that he should deliver answers that could not mollify them but would demonstrate that he knew his business. This he didn't do, and it seemed that he was lost in the whirlwind of a process in which he should have done well because he had had long experience with it.
Hagel has taken many positions that were prescient, but others---like those on Iran---were not only demonstrably foolish but contrary to those of the president who nominated him. Priding himself on being a midwestern populist and a maverick, Hagel made a habit of spouting contentious remarks. Now, there is nothing wrong with being a politician who says things that are impolitic, but if you yearn to be something bigger than just a sound-bite, you need to be prepared to handle the heat that comes with a loose lip, and to do so with a conviction that demonstrates the ability to lead disparate interests in the defense of the Republic.
Among people who favor his confirmation, much has been made of Hagel's service in Vietnam, and we should be delighted that, finally, a combat veteran may be at the helm of the Defense Department. But that shouldn't be the sole criterion on which to base suitability for a post of enormous responsibility and import, and even Hagel admits that, although the crucible of war should inform our view of things, it should not be the sole influence on us. If he is confirmed by the Senate, he will have to rely on much more than his combat experience to get us through a minefield of threats to the nation's defense, and those who are optimistic about Hagel would better manage their expectations with skepticism.