America votes for a new president on November 8, 2016 – at the moment only 573 days from now, roughly eighteen months from right now. Here’s a handy countdown clock – a useful reminder not to take the big news of the day all that seriously. Yes, Hillary Clinton has announced she’s running. This is official now, but everyone knew she would run. She had to. The Democrats have no one else with her name-recognition and résumé – former first lady, former senator, former secretary of state, and so on. No other Democrat can match that. No Republican can. She may have already locked up enough electoral votes to win.
The only issue with Hillary Clinton is that no one is quite sure why she wants to be president, other than that she wants to be president. So far, there’s no grand vision. She has told America that, this time, her candidacy is about them, not her – she’ll be their champion, whatever that means. She’ll stop talking about herself and listen, and at the moment she’s in Iowa, listening, and testing out a bit of that Elizabeth Warren economic populism stuff, to see if that’s what people want. Maybe they do, but her friends on Wall Street, her major donors, don’t seem to mind. Anything that gets her elected will be fine with them. They know she won’t betray them. Her husband deregulated everything in sight back in the nineties. The two of them think alike. Keep the banks and big corporations happy and America will prosper. Use what’s left over to do good things for everyone else – not liberalism but neoliberalism – and her major donors may be right. That Elizabeth Warren economic populism stuff may be for show. In the meanwhile, Hillary Clinton is in Iowa, trying her very best to look authentic. It’s painful to watch. It’s going to be a long eighteen months.
Republicans sense that Hillary Clinton is vulnerable. She is no Barack Obama, the whip-smart but pleasant fellow, gracious and cool under pressure, and above all reasonable, who had a vision of a reasonable government that would finally get a few good things done, if everyone would calm down and think things though and actually talk to each other. That turned out to be beyond naïve, but it was a vision – voters bought into it, twice – and Hillary’s got nothing. She just wants to be president, and the “vision thing” is what the Republicans can offer now.
That’s a work in progress. Ted Cruz announced. He wants to repeal all of Obamacare. The wrong sorts of people are getting government help buying health insurance, and the new insurance standards offend all Christians. In fact, everything Obama has done offends all Christians, as with gay folks and whatnot, so his notion is to mobilize all the angry white social conservatives in America and get every last one of them to finally vote, to overwhelm the ungodly. They’d elect him. That’s his vision, but a few days later Rand Paul announced. Paul has a libertarian vision – but not as nutty as his father’s – that government is useless and should do next to nothing, here and abroad. If you elect him to run the government, he’ll get the government out of your hair. He’ll keep it from doing much of anything. That’s freedom. That’s his vision. Jeb Bush will announce soon, as the “good” Bush after two duds. That’s as much as we know so far. When Scott Walker announces he’ll present his vision. Everyone knows that already – stupid regulations and greedy, whining American workers (who are lucky they get paid at all, and labor unions are no more than terrorist organizations) are ruining things for the rest of us. His vision of America is one where businesses thrive. Elect him and they will.
Marco Rubio announced too – and he brought back the neoconservative vision. We must again assume “the mantle of leadership” for a New American Century of our firm but fair dominance over the whole world, everywhere, through either snarling intimidation or the actual use of massive force. That hasn’t worked out well in the past dozen years, but who else can possibly lead the world? We are it. Rand Paul may roll his eyes, but this matter was settled long ago. That’s his vision.
That’s a curious vision, given the current negotiations with Iran regarding their nuclear program. Rubio is arguing Obama must be stopped. Our president should not be able to reach an agreement with Iran. Congress should decide that sort of thing. The president should be neutered, on principle. He doesn’t speak for America. Congress does, which begs the question. Why does Rubio want to be president? Why not stay in the Senate? That’s where the action is. That’s the seat of power.
David Weigel points out that Rubio is already laying down the terms of any agreement:
In his Monday night interview with Sean Hannity, Florida Senator Marco Rubio became the first Republican presidential candidate to demand a concession from Iran that’s as politically resonant at home as it is untenable in Tehran.
“There should have been a clear recognition on their part that Israel has a right to exist as a Jewish state,” Rubio said, of Iran’s concessions in negotiations.
“And that has to be a precondition?” asked Fox News’s Hannity. “But in the middle of negotiations, if they’re saying the destruction of Israel is nonnegotiable, is that – should that be a deal killer?”
The answer is yes – no recognition of Israel, no deal – and if that means Iran, with no more talking with us possible, builds bombs, and we have to wipe the whole place off the face of the map, so be it. Obama screwed up by not demanding this, and Weigel notes the obvious:
That was exactly the sort of answer Hannity wanted; he had mentioned the lack of recognition a week earlier, in his sit-down with Kentucky Senator Rand Paul. And it was an answer in sync with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. On April 3, Netanyahu had demanded that any deal include a “clear and unambiguous Iranian commitment of Israel’s right to exist.” Days later, President Barack Obama told NPR’s Steve Inskeep that the demand was just impossible.
“The notion that we would condition Iran not getting nuclear weapons, in a verifiable deal, on Iran recognizing Israel is really akin to saying that we won’t sign a deal unless the nature of the Iranian regime completely transforms,” said the president. “And that is, I think, a fundamental misjudgment.”
But a new vision is appearing:
By agreeing with Netanyahu, Rubio may have shifted the Overton Window for Republican debate on the Iran deal. If he didn’t, it would only be because Republicans – with the exception of Paul – have opposed the deal with no hint that it could be flavored with anything worth supporting. If Netanyahu’s demand becomes part of the Republican catechism, it might happen two weekends from now, when casino magnate Sheldon Adelson invites Republican presidential candidates to a summit in Las Vegas.
This is a challenge to the presidency, to its primacy, from a bunch of guys who want the job for some reason, and Obama decided it was time to throw them a bone:
The White House relented on Tuesday and said President Obama would sign a compromise bill giving Congress a voice on the proposed nuclear accord with Iran as the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in rare unanimous agreement, moved the legislation to the full Senate for a vote.
An unusual alliance of Republican opponents of the nuclear deal and some of Mr. Obama’s strongest Democratic supporters demanded a congressional role as international negotiators work to turn this month’s nuclear framework into a final deal by June 30. White House officials insisted they extracted crucial last-minute concessions. Republicans – and many Democrats – said the president simply got overrun.
“We’re involved here. We have to be involved here,” said Senator Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland, the committee’s ranking Democrat, who served as a bridge between the White House and Republicans as they negotiated changes in the days before the committee’s vote on Tuesday. “Only Congress can change or permanently modify the sanctions regime.”
Fine, let them have a say, for what that’s worth:
The essence of the legislation is that Congress will have a chance to vote on whatever deal emerges with Iran – if one is reached by June 30 – but in a way that would be extremely difficult for Mr. Obama to lose, allowing Secretary of State John Kerry to tell his Iranian counterpart that the risk that an agreement would be upended on Capitol Hill is limited.
As Congress considers any accord on a very short timetable, it would essentially be able to vote on an eventual end to sanctions, and then later take up the issue depending on whether Iran has met its own obligations. But if it rejected the agreement, Mr. Obama could veto that legislation – and it would take only 34 senators to sustain the veto, meaning that Mr. Obama could lose upward of a dozen Democratic senators and still prevail.
This was for show, but at least everyone’s unhappy:
Josh Earnest, the White House spokesman, said Mr. Obama was not “particularly thrilled” with the bill, but had decided that a new proposal put together by the top Republican and Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee made enough changes to make it acceptable.
“We’ve gone from a piece of legislation that the president would veto to a piece of legislation that’s undergone substantial revision such that it’s now in the form of a compromise that the president would be willing to sign,” Mr. Earnest said. “That would certainly be an improvement.”
Senator Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee and the committee’s chairman, had a far different interpretation. As late as 11:30 a.m., in a classified briefing at the Capitol, Mr. Kerry was urging senators to oppose the bill. The “change occurred when they saw how many senators were going to vote for this, and only when that occurred,” Mr. Corker said.
And the presidency is reduced:
The agreement almost certainly means Congress will muscle its way into nuclear negotiations that Mr. Obama sees as a legacy-defining foreign policy achievement.
The Senate is expected to vote on the legislation this month, and House Republican leaders have promised to pass it shortly after.
“Congress absolutely should have the opportunity to review this deal,” the House speaker, John A. Boehner of Ohio, said Tuesday. “We shouldn’t just count on the administration, which appears to want a deal at any cost.”
White House officials blitzed Congress in the days after the framework of a nuclear deal was announced, making 130 phone calls to lawmakers, but quickly came to the conclusion that the legislation could not be blocked altogether.
Moreover, officials increasingly worried that an unresolved fight could torpedo the next phase of negotiations with Iran.
“Having this lingering uncertainty about whether we could deliver on our side of the deal was probably a deal killer,” said a senior administration official, who asked for anonymity to describe internal deliberations.
Still, the devil is in the details:
Under the compromise legislation, a 60-day review period of a final nuclear agreement in the original bill was in effect cut in half, to 30 days, starting with its submission to Congress. But tacked on to that review period potentially would be the maximum 12 days the president would have to decide whether to accept or veto a resolution of disapproval, should Congress take that vote.
The formal review period would also include a maximum of 10 days Congress would have to override the veto. For Republicans, that would mean the president could not lift sanctions for a maximum of 52 days after submitting a final accord to Congress, along with all classified material.
And if a final accord is not submitted to Congress by July 9, the review period will snap back to 60 days. That would prevent the administration from intentionally delaying the submission of the accord to the Capitol. Congress could not reopen the mechanics of a deal, and taking no action would be the equivalent of allowing it to move forward.
And so on and so forth, but the young fellow from Florida is still out there:
Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, fresh off the opening of his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, dropped plans to push for an amendment to make any Iran deal dependent on the Islamic Republic’s recognition of the State of Israel, a diplomatic nonstarter.
But he hinted that he could try on the Senate floor.
“Not getting anything done plays right into the hands of the administration,” Mr. Rubio said.
And he wants Obama’s job? Slate’s William Saletan does wonder why:
President Obama says Republicans are undermining his authority in negotiations with other countries. He gives several examples. One is the letter from 47 Republican senators advising Iran not to trust Obama’s promises in a nuclear deal. Another is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s warning to foreign leaders that Obama’s domestic opponents won’t cooperate in any climate change plan he approves. The last straw was an allegation on Thursday from Sen. John McCain, the GOP’s 2008 presidential nominee, that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is lying about the terms of the Iran nuclear deal and that Americans should instead believe the contrary account given by Iran’s dictator.
Obama calls these developments a breach of precedent. Last week, he told New York Times columnist Tom Friedman: “I do worry that some traditional boundaries in how we think about foreign policy have been crossed.”
Saletan had news for Obama:
Sorry, but those traditions died long ago. If you study Republican behavior over the past quarter-century, you’ll find that the image of conservative lawmakers standing resolutely for American strength and unity is a myth. Republicans support wars launched by Republican presidents. When Democratic presidents undertake wars or negotiations, Republicans generally attempt to sabotage them. In fact, Republicans often side with our enemies.
This has happened before:
President Clinton faced one big war. In 1999, he sought to enlist the United States in NATO’s air campaign in Serbia. The campaign aimed to stop the ethnic cleansing of Muslims in Kosovo. When a resolution authorizing U.S. participation in the war came before the Senate, Democrats voted for it, 42 to 3. Republicans voted against it, 38 to 16. The resolution went through, but it failed a month later with a tie vote in the House. Democrats voted for the resolution, 181 to 25. Republicans voted against it, 187 to 31.
Four of the five Republican leaders in Congress – Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, Senate Majority Whip Don Nickles, House Majority Leader Dick Armey, and House Majority Whip Tom DeLay – voted against the resolution. So did Rep. John Boehner, who had just completed his tenure as chairman of the House Republican Conference. DeLay also voted for a resolution declaring that the House “directs the President to remove United States Armed Forces from their positions in connection with the present operations against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.”
Republican leaders didn’t just try to block the president. They defended Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic. When Gen. Joseph Ralston, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Milosevic “had already started his campaign of killing” before NATO intervened, Nickles disagreed. “I would take a little issue with [what] Gen. Ralston said,” the senator retorted. “The number of killings prior to the bombing, I think, has been exaggerated.”
DeLay and Nickles blamed the ethnic cleansing on the United States and NATO. Nickles said NATO’s peace proposal to the Serbs – which Milosevic had rejected, leading to the war – had been “very arrogant.” Lott agreed. He accused the United States of not doing “enough in the diplomatic area” to appease Milosevic – and he urged Clinton to “give peace a chance.” Nickles dismissed NATO’s mission as “ludicrous.”
DeLay functioned as a propaganda minister for Milosevic, bucking up Serbian morale and belittling NATO’s efforts. “He’s stronger in Kosovo now than he was before the bombing,” DeLay said of Milosevic. “The Serbian people are rallying around him like never before. He’s much stronger with his allies.” When U.S. officials suggested that Milosevic was losing strength, DeLay dismissed this as disinformation from “the president’s spin machine.” DeLay concluded that “the bombing was a mistake” and that “this president ought to admit it and come to some sort of negotiated end.”
The Republicans were wrong. NATO’s pressure forced Milosevic to capitulate, and the ethnic cleansing stopped.
Saletan also notes that in 2008, when the Republican lost the White House, their “attitude toward presidential authority turned hostile” once again:
Republicans’ hostility focused not on Afghanistan or Iraq – the wars for which they couldn’t escape responsibility – but on Libya, which they could safely portray as Obama’s conflict. Throughout the 2011 Libya campaign and the 2012 election, they mocked Obama for “leading from behind” in Libya. Many Republicans said we should never have entered the war, since Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi hadn’t attacked the United States and posed no immediate threat to us.
Rep. Michele Bachmann, a presidential candidate and darling of the right, suggested that the U.S.-led NATO strikes in Libya had killed 10,000 to 30,000 innocent civilians. She cited, as her source for this claim, Qaddafi’s regime. In the 2012 presidential debates, former GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich and other Republicans agreed with much of her criticism. “Two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is a lot,” Gingrich argued in an NBC News interview. He accused Obama of going to war in Libya for the United Nations and the Arab League instead of “looking at American interests.” “We could get engaged by this standard in all sorts of places,” Gingrich objected. He concluded: “I would not have intervened.”
While the presidential candidates criticized the war, Republicans in Congress tried to stop it. Two months into the bombing campaign, House Speaker John Boehner sponsored and pushed through a resolution declaring that Obama had “failed to provide Congress with a compelling rationale based upon United States national security interests for current United States military activities regarding Libya.” The resolution forbade Obama from using U.S. ground forces and warned him that “Congress has the constitutional prerogative to withhold funding for any unauthorized use of the United States Armed Forces.” Democrats opposed the resolution, but Republicans passed it, voting 223 to 10 in favor.
Republican efforts to sabotage the U.S. war effort were so persistent and vigorous that Qaddafi sent a letter to members of Congress thanking them. The letter, issued a week after the House adopted Boehner’s resolution, told lawmakers: “We are counting on the United States Congress [for] its continued investigation of military activities of NATO and its allies.”
That, finally, was too much for John McCain, who on the Senate floor, laid into his fellow Republicans with this:
Last week, Qaddafi wrote a personal letter of thanks to the members of Congress who voted to censure the President and end our nation’s involvement in Libya. Republicans need to ask themselves whether they want to be part of a group who are earning the grateful thanks of a murderous tyrant for trying to limit an American president’s ability to force that tyrant to leave power.
McCain had a point, but four years later he and forty-six other Republican senators signed an “Open Letter to the Leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran” – the president’s word doesn’t mean a damned thing – that’s not how things work over here – the Senate here decides such things – the American presidency is pretty much ornamental or something. We can and will rescind any concessions made by any president, and certainly this president. Deal with it.
Saletan was amazed by that:
It seemed unimaginable that McCain, a Vietnam War hero, trusted Iran’s theocratic rulers more than he trusted his own president. But on Thursday, McCain suggested precisely that. A conservative radio host – Hugh Hewitt – pointed out to McCain that Iran’s leaders were contradicting what Obama and Kerry (now the secretary of state) had said about the nuclear agreement. “Today, the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, said that the deal is no deal unless sanctions come off on Day One,” Hewitt told McCain. Hewitt noted that Iran’s defense minister was also ruling out inspections of Iran’s military centers, which were supposedly part of the deal. McCain, referring to Khamenei and the defense minister, replied:
“You’ve got to give them a little sympathy in this respect, in that John Kerry must have known what was in [the deal], and yet chose to interpret it in another way. It’s probably in black and white that the ayatollah is probably right. John Kerry is delusional. … You’re going to find out that they had never agreed to the things that John Kerry claimed that they had. So in a way, I can’t blame the ayatollah, because I don’t think they ever agreed to it, and I think John Kerry tried to come back and sell a bill of goods. … It reveals that a number of things about John Kerry’s negotiating capabilities, and also about his candor with the American people.”
McCain was calling Kerry a liar based on the testimony of Iranian hard-liners, with whom McCain explicitly sympathized.
It was more of the same:
A week before the Republican senators sent their letter to Iran, Boehner used his power as House speaker to bring Israel’s prime minister to Congress, against Obama’s wishes, to speak against the Iran deal. Meanwhile, McConnell launched a campaign to block Obama’s ability to negotiate a treaty on climate change. In a March 31 statement that echoed the tactics of the letter to Iran, McConnell advised foreign leaders not to trust U.S. commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. “Considering that two-thirds of the U.S. federal government hasn’t even signed off on the Clean Power Plan and 13 states have already pledged to fight it,” he warned them, “our international partners should proceed with caution before entering into a binding, unattainable deal.”
And there’s this:
Last week, just before McCain gave his interview to Hugh Hewitt, Cheney appeared on the same show. He said of Obama: “If you had somebody as president who wanted to take America down, who wanted to fundamentally weaken our position in the world and reduce our capacity to influence events, turn our back on our allies and encourage our adversaries, it would look exactly like what Barack Obama’s doing.” When Hewitt played back Cheney’s quote for McCain two days later, the senator agreed with it.
Saletan offers this assessment:
That’s a cold, clear, functional definition of treason. But it could be applied just as easily – and with a better fit – to Cheney, McCain, and their collaborators on the right. If a political party wanted to tear America apart, weaken its position in the world, reduce our capacity to influence events, and encourage our adversaries, it would look exactly like what the Republican Party has done under Democratic presidents.
There is, however, more to it than that. These efforts always undermine the office of the presidency, an office that all of them, at one time or another, seek. They have their visions of how things should be, after all. Once they are president they’ll make it so – or they won’t, because they’ve spent years saying that the office doesn’t matter, and made that so. So, why do they want the job anyway?
At least Hillary Clinton is more honest about such things. She just wants the job, because she wants the job.