by Richard Baehr
In the course of testimony this week, Kerry admitted he did not know what was in the side agreements between the International Atomic Energy Agency and Iran relating to the process for inspections of the Parchin site and other locations where prior military activity related to Iran's nuclear program may have occurred. Kerry had not provided any information on these side agreements when the overall agreement was submitted to Congress.
John Kerry giveth and Barack Obama taketh away. After a few days of hearings in U.S. House of Representatives and Senate committees and subcommittees, opponents of the Iran nuclear deal were hoping for an extension of hearings, if for no other reason, than to keep the secretary of state on the hot seat. The more Kerry spoke, the greater were the doubts among wavering Democrats about the agreement. Kerry's performance combined some of his worst tendencies -- a disdain for anyone challenging what he regards as his received wisdom, and an inability to make a case, in this instance for a bad deal that he himself negotiated. In the course of testimony this week, Kerry admitted he did not know what was in the side agreements between the International Atomic Energy Agency and Iran relating to the process for inspections of the Parchin site and other locations where prior military activity related to Iran's nuclear program may have occurred. Kerry had not provided any information on these side agreements when the overall agreement was submitted to Congress. Similarly, Kerry responded to a question from a Democratic member of Congress by stating that if the Congress voted down the bill, he did not know whether the president would accept that vote and obey the law (apparently, governing by the law of the land has become a hypothetical that the secretary did not feel he could address at this point). Many in Congress, including Democrats, were already unhappy that the agreement had been submitted for a vote (which passed) in the U.N. Security Council before Congress even began hearings on the agreement.
However, the president for the first time really since the House vote on the Affordable Care Act (e.g., Obamacare) in 2010, has taken to personally lobbying Democratic members of the House of Representatives to vote for the Iran deal. And the president seems very invested in using all the powers of the White House to make his persuasion job easier. Kerry may have assisted opponents by his weak answers and unconvincing argument that however good or bad the deal was, the alternative was war, which had to be worse. In essence, he seemed to be conceding that it almost did not matter what was in the final deal. That defeatist posture explains a lot -- in particular the deluge of late concessions by the Americans in the final negotiations -- everything was fair game so long as there was a deal to be brought home. As for the alternative -- who exactly was going to war, if the negotiations had broken down, or if the Congress voted down the deal? Obama? Israel? The EU? Iran?
The president seemed very conversant with the details of the deal, and made some of the same straw man arguments about the lack of alternatives, but also pushed the importance of this to him and the administration, and that argument carries a good deal of weight with Democrats.
There are parallels between the approach the administration took in passing the health care reform legislation, and the approach it seems to be taking now. In the case of the health care reform bill, the Senate had already passed a version of the bill that differed from the House version. The president and his aides adopted a strategy of having the House approve the Senate bill, and then use a technique known as budget reconciliation to pass changes to the Senate bill in both branches of Congress by simple majority vote. So the key vote was in the House to accept the Senate version of the bill. Even though there was a large Democratic majority in the House at the time (near 60% of the seats), many Democratic members knew they were likely signing their walking papers by voting for the bill. Obamacare was unpopular in the year it was debated, and in the years since has never received majority support in any opinion polls. Close to 40 Democrats did not support the health care bill, but enough did vote for it to have it narrowly pass in the House. In the congressional elections later that year, Democrats lost over 60 seats and their majority in the House, largely due to voter anger over the Obamacare legislation, including the fact that it passed on a straight party line vote without any Republican support. Unlike all other major changes to domestic policy -- the adoption of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, which all gained bipartisan support, the Obamcare bill was viewed as having been jammed through Congress without the same broad support.
The president and his top White House aides, such as Ben Rhodes, have made it very clear to members of the party in the House and Senate, but also to activists around the country, that the Iran deal represents a foreign policy legacy for Obama similar to the significance of the passage of the health reform bill in his first term, his key domestic policy "achievement." And increasingly it appears that if the president's deal is to be sustained, he will again rely solely on the votes of Democrats. Among the 247 Republican House members, and 54 Republican senators, there may be a total of two or three who are uncommitted on the Iran deal, and pretty much everyone else is expected to vote no. Assuming Republicans can persuade their undecided members to join the rest of the GOP caucus in opposing the deal, the president's hopes will again, as with the health care reform bill, depend on his ability to keep members of his own party in line.
So far, the president's effort, as well as other members of the administration, has been almost singly focused on House members. This suggests that the administration expects that on an initial vote, both the House and Senate will vote down the Iran deal. That rejection will then be vetoed by Obama, and then there will be a vote to override the veto, requiring a 2/3 vote in both the House and Senate for the opponents to be successful. The lobbying of House members suggests that the administration is more confident that it can persuade House members than senators to stick with him and defeat the override vote. Senators run for their seats every six years, and have to win statewide. Many Senate races are competitive, and they are always expensive. Most House members, on the other hand, run in districts where the outcome is pre-ordained -- with comfortable margins assured for Democrats in some districts, and for Republicans in others. Perhaps 15% of the House seats -- 60 to 70 of the 435, are truly competitive in a wave year, where there is a big shift for one party, as occurred towards the Democrats in 2006 and 2008, and towards Republicans in 2010 and 2014. As a result of the fact that senators need a broader appeal to win statewide than most House members do in their districts where they tend to win comfortably, senators tend to be a bit more independent and less straight party line than House members. A plea for party loyalty to back the president will resound more with House Democrats than Senate Democrats. This is also the case due to the racial makeup of the Democratic caucus in each branch of Congress. There is only one Hispanic and one African-American Democratic senator, but close to 70 House members from the two groups. African-American House members, in particular, have circled the wagons to protect the first black president on every key vote so far since he was elected. They have been very outspoken -- accusing Republican opponents of challenging him mainly because of his race. This is a preposterous accusation, since there are sharp policy differences between the Obama administration and Republicans in Congress which would come out whatever the race of a Democratic president with Obama's agenda.
This week, a Democratic congressional committee identified 14 House Democrats as vulnerable members in the 2016 elections. Since opponents of the Iran deal need to get at least 43 Democrats to join them, the pool of swing district Democrats to pick from is much smaller than during the Obamacare vote. Potential no votes among Democratic House members may include some of the 18 Jewish members or other Democrats in districts in states with a sizable Jewish population. Roughly 90% of the Jewish population in the U.S. is in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Maryland, California, Florida, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Arizona and Illinois, and lobbying by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and other groups is likely to focus on these members. In this regard, it was disappointing that Sander Levin, a Jewish Democrat from Michigan, endorsed the deal this week, even before congressional testimony was completed, as did Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democratic congressman who is running for that state's open Senate seat. Van Hollen is running against an African-American congresswoman for the Democratic nomination, and may have felt he could not stray too far from the president in a state where half the Democratic primary voters are African-American. Courage and independent judgment are regularly trumped by hard political calculation at this point.
Most political analysts continue to believe that both the House and Senate will vote the deal down on its initial vote, but that there are not enough Democrats to translate that simple majority against the deal into a 2/3 majority against the deal on a vote to override an Obama veto, particularly in the House. A majority of Americans are opposed to the deal, but so far pubic opinion does not seem to have influenced the congressional alignment on the deal.
From the time he became president, Obama has been committed to breaking the historic bipartisan support in Congress for Israel, by pushing Democrats to the left on this issue as on all others. Obama was cozy with and helped build J Street, a left-wing George Soros-funded anti-Israel group that has backed him every time he criticized or pressured Israel. AIPAC, which defended the president against attacks when he first ran in 2008, has been effectively neutered as Obama worked to make Israel a partisan issue.
Today, Democrats who stand with the president on this deal are, for all practical purposes, standing with Iran, since it is the prime beneficiary of the agreement. That is the main problem with the deal.
They will also be standing with a president and administration who are using blatantly anti-Semitic and anti-Israel messaging in their attacks on opponents of the deal. Democrats who vote for the deal will make obligatory statements about how they are nonetheless strong supporters of Israel and the U.S.-Israel relationship. But their vote will be a vote for pushing the two counties further apart, and endangering Israel. Such is the price of party loyalty these days.
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