Back in November, an exultant GOP seemed blessed with fair winds and following seas. Although a president’s party almost always suffers losses in midterm elections, the Democrats’ setbacks had cost them the Senate, unifying Congress under Republican control.
Republicans could now move from a posture of opposition to winning public approval by demonstrating the serious, substantive alternative they offered.
That, at least, was the hope.
So how are things going so far? Well, certainly not according to that optimistic script.
The nation has become so inured to brinksmanship over budgetary matters that those battles are dismissed as so much background noise, even when the agency under threat is as vital as the Department of Homeland Security. Both the stare-downs and the elaborate political maneuvers required to end them are rituals made necessary by the combination of a weak speaker and a rambunctious right-wing caucus.
But Republicans have now extended their attempts to thwart the president into the realm of foreign affairs — and unlike the fiscal skirmishes, this has played out under unforgiving flood lights on the international stage. Nor is this new thrust one where the GOP’s congressional leadership has had its hand forced by its members.
Speaker John Boehner’s decision to let Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu use Congress as an electioneering prop exuded disdain not just for President Obama but for diplomatic protocol as well. No amount of spin could disguise that.
Further, there’s really no plausible explanation for the Senate Republicans’ open letter to Iranian leaders that doesn’t make it look as though their primary concern is winning their power struggle with Obama. In their letter, they warn that any agreement the president strikes could be revoked by the next chief executive or modified by a future Congress. It’s hard to interpret that warning as anything other than an attempt to scuttle, prospectively, any pact that Obama won’t agree to submit for their approval.
It’s one thing to see a brash young partisan like Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton make such an ill-considered move. It’s quite another to have 46 other senators, including Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and 2008 GOP presidential nominee John McCain, add their names. (McCain obviously realizes he made a serious mistake here, but rather than concede as much, he’s blaming it on the rush to leave Washington before a snowstorm.)
Now, the rhetoric about that letter somehow being treasonous is badly overblown. Yet it does reveal a party driven to such distraction by Obama that it’s in an oppose-first, think-later mode.
Indeed, in lending Netanyahu the House chamber for his reelection campaign, in preemptively trying to derail a nuclear deal with Iran, and in insisting, details unseen, that Obama isn’t being tough enough in those negotiations, congressional Republicans have lost intelligent perspective.
Certainly any insistence that Iran shouldn’t retain any uranium-enrichment capacity, for fear it could lead to the future development of a bomb, is too demanding to be realistic.
Since the era of intercontinental nuclear missiles, citizens of this country have lived with the possibility of nuclear war. Sometimes, as in the Cuban Missile Crisis, that prospect has seemed very real. Throughout, however, we have relied on nuclear deterrence: That is, our adversaries’ certain knowledge that launching a nuclear attack on the United States would result in a devastating counterattack.
Even if a future Iranian quest for a bomb went undiscovered long enough to be successful — a sizable “if” — Iranian leaders would be subject to the same deterrence dynamic, given that Israel is known to be nuclear-armed.
Those senators who signed the letter have entered into dangerous new territory.
Yet even before seeing any deal with Iran or hearing the administration’s explanation, Republicans are denouncing it — and without a more plausible peaceful path forward. Their alternatives are even tougher sanctions or, apparently, military action.
It’s breathtakingly irresponsible. We’ve long been accustomed to the opposition party acting rashly in domestic affairs, of course. But in the international realm, this new partisan recklessness is something the nation simply can’t afford.