Monday, August 3, 2015

The president vs Kerry - Richard Baehr

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.

Richard Baehr


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