Republican Game Theory

In 2010, the Republicans didn’t have the votes to block passage of the Affordable Care Act. In 2012, their guy, Mitt Romney, ran on the promise he would get rid of it, of every single word in the Act – and he lost, badly. The Affordable Care Act survived two Supreme Court challenges, and the House Republicans have voted to repeal it fifty or sixty times. But that was the House. Republicans never had the votes to push that through both houses of Congress, and Obama would veto anything like that anyway – and they would never have the votes to override a veto. But they won’t give up. Everyone hates Obamacare. It’s ruining America. Everyone knows this. That’s what they say, but no one is listening anymore. We have Obamacare. It’s not going away. Those Republicans who still talk about getting rid of it now talk to empty rooms. It’s over.

Something else is over. Forty-two senators now publicly support the Iran deal, our part of the international agreement to lift the world’s sanctions as Iran dismantles its nuclear weapons program, with everyone watching. Forty-two votes are enough to block a vote formally disapproving of the deal, enough to keep it from coming to the floor of the Senate. The House vote won’t matter. Obama won’t have to veto anything.

This is over too, even if the Republicans didn’t expect that, as Josh Marshall explains here:

It wasn’t supposed to go like this. Republicans were looking for an Obamacare/Tea Party-like storm to overtake Democrats over the August recess – a popular outcry, rowdy town halls and constituent backlashes that would change the calculus when Congress returned in September. But it just didn’t happen at all. … The votes just kept trickling in the wrong direction.

That meant that Dick Cheney gave his speech at the American Enterprise Institute, thundering against the deal, just as the vote count changed. The vote was supposed to be still a week or so away. They’d win. Both houses of Congress would formally disapprove the deal – then Obama would veto that legislation – and then they’d see if they could override that veto. But this was over before it even got started. They wouldn’t even get their vote of disapproval though Congress, to start the ball rolling. Republicans who might still talk about getting rid of this deal would soon be talking to empty rooms.

That may be so, but these folks will talk anyway:

Business mogul Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) warned of catastrophic consequences should the Iranian nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration pass Congress, including death and the possibility of nuclear conflict.

Appearing during an hours-long rally on the Capitol lawn where speaker after speaker railed against the deal, Republican leadership and President Obama, Cruz warned that the Obama administration would become “the leading financier of radical Islamic terrorism” if he deal goes through.

“It’s worth remembering that if this deal goes through we know to an absolute certainty that people will die,” Cruz said.

They don’t think it’s too late:

Trump, who took the stage to REM’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It,” said that he has “been doing deals for a long time” but has never seen one like the Iran accord.

“I’ve been making lots of wonderful deals, great deals – that’s what I do,” Trump said. “Never ever, ever in my life have I seen any transaction so incompetently negotiated as our deal with Iran – and I mean never.”

Then he laid into Obama and John Boehner and Mitch McConnell:

“We are led by very, very stupid people. Very, very stupid people. We cannot let it continue,” Trump told crowd, eliciting large cheers. He said America “can’t beat anybody” and vowed that would change if he is elected president.

“We will have so much winning if I get elected that you may get bored with winning. Believe me!” Trump said. “You’ll never get bored with winning.”

And, as opposed to very, very stupid people, Trump and Cruz, were joined by Sarah Palin, and those conservative radio guys Glenn Beck and Mark Levin. Cruz helped organize the event, along with the Tea Party Patriots and the Zionist Organization of America, and Cruz said this wasn’t over:

Cruz said he hoped that Senate Democrats would change their mind on the deal – that they would “fall to their knees and pray” and decide to change their vote – but if they support the deal they will bear responsibility if people die because of it.

And that’s why he brought in the heavy artillery:

Despite being rivals for the Republican presidential nomination, Cruz and Trump enjoy an unusually cozy relationship. Cruz, who invited Trump to the rally because he would bring the spotlight, praised the real estate mogul as “my friend” and the two men embraced on stage. “Donald has an incredible ability to attract attention,” Cruz told reporters after the rally.

And the crowd was what you would expect:

People waved huge American and Israeli flags. A group of bagpipers played patriotic songs. People sported shirts sporting the American flag and a contingent of men dressed in colonial garb showed up. A woman from Phoenix held a punching bag with a cartoon of President Obama on it; a man walked up and asked if he could hit it.

“Can I punch him, please?” the man, Jim Scearce of Danville, Va., asked, and he hit the bag. “My only dream is that could have been real life.”

And the woman from Alaska did her part:

In a winding speech that included references to Russia being near Alaska and President Obama’s selfie stick and Hillary Clinton, Palin said the U.S. is “suppin’ with Sharia” with the deal.

“Only in an Orwellian Obama world full of sprinkly fairy dust blown from atop his unicorn as he’s peeking through a really pretty pink kaleidoscope would he ever see victory or safety for America or Israel in this treaty,” Palin said.

As opposed to very, very stupid people, the crowd got vintage Sarah Palin, as if the White House cared. They have the votes. This side has Donald Trump and Ted Cruz:

Trump has blasted the deal as “incompetent,” “insane” and “horrible.” Cruz has made repealing the Iran deal one of his signature issues on the campaign trail, calling it the “single greatest national security threat facing America” and vowing to undo the deal on his first day in office, should he be elected president.

Cruz was rebuffed when he tried to tie a bill imposing additional sanctions on Iran to a highway bill, and threatened in July to block funding for the State Department if the Senate did not vote. Cruz said the Obama administration would become the world’s leading terrorism financier if the deal were to go through.

Cruz took to the Senate floor Wednesday morning before the rally to rail against the deal.

“This terrible deal will not stop a virulently anti-American and anti-Israeli regime from getting a nuclear bomb,” he said.

The House and the Senate must vote to disapprove! He didn’t say where the votes would come from, but it didn’t matter:

Louis Morris, 71, of Silver Spring, said he knows that Democrats have enough votes, but he wanted to send a message that people are against the deal – and possibly change some minds. “It ain’t over until it’s over,” Morris said.

Sure, but lots of people say that as the stands empty and everyone goes home. Your team won or lost. The game is over.

The only thing to do is change the game. Slate’s Jim Newall explains how that may be happening:

“Obama is a black, Jew-hating, jihadist putting America and Israel and the rest of the planet in grave danger,” said Bob Kunst of Miami. Kunst – pairing a Hillary Clinton rubber mask with a blue T-shirt reading “INFIDEL” -was holding one sign that accused Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John Kerry of “Fulfilling Hitler’s Dreams” and another that queried, “DIDN’T WE LEARN ANYTHING FROM 1938?” His only reassurance was that, when Iran launches its attack on the mainland, it’ll be stopped quickly by America’s heavily armed citizenry.

Not every attendee or speaker at the rally, organized by the Tea Party Patriots, was as colorful as Kunst. As with many right-wing rallies during the Obama era – though this is the rare occasion that dealt with a foreign policy agreement – normally dressed citizens concerned about policy consequences were intermixed with howling conservative activists carrying bombastic, crude signs.

And they had to come up with something:

Heading into Wednesday afternoon, the Stop the Iran Deal Rally felt more like a coda for a failed summer campaign to scuttle the deal than a useful means of accomplishing anything. The deal’s grassroots opponents originally seemed to believe that members would be so overwhelmed with protests against the accord when they were home for their August recess that nary a one would dare return to Washington and allow the administration’s deal to skirt through. But even though the deal polls abysmally, the administration was able to successfully whip nearly all Senate Democrats in its favor. It will be implemented now – that is, until at least January 2017, when President Marco Rubio or Scott Walker tears it up on Day 1, or President Trump begins the process of “renegotiating” it in a way that Makes America Great Again.

But try telling that to these folks. And especially try telling them that Congress, specifically the Republican leaders in Sen. Mitch McConnell and Speaker John Boehner, have no tools at their disposal to stop it.

That’s the game-change. Find new bad guys:

That’s how Tea Party Patriots and other affiliated groups conveniently shifted the focus of their rally once Senate supporters crossed the threshold of 34 votes last week: The deal will only go through if the Republican establishment allows it to pass. President Obama may “make Neville Chamberlain look like George Patton,” in the words of right-wing talk radio personality Mark Levin, but the Republican leaders would be even worse by allowing him to get away with it.

Freshman Rep. Dave Brat, aka the Cantor Slayer, elicited stronger boos by mentioning the names “McConnell and Boehner” than any mention of the name “Obama” did all day. “Leadership got us into this mess, and they’re the only ones who can get us out,” he said to cheers, as music began to play signaling that his brief speaking window had closed. “The situation we’re in is a product of weak leadership.”

Frank Gaffney, the former Reagan administration Defense Department official who has since built a career trafficking in entertainingly grim paranoia, declared that “if Republican leaders in the Senate and House do not stop the deal – which they can – their names will be on the bombs.”

This changes everything:

The plan they’re alluding to is a fast-moving one that, within the past 48 hours, has sent congressional Republicans into chaos. “All that has to happen,” Sen. Ted Cruz said to the crowd, “is for Mitch McConnell and John Boehner to say the review period hasn’t started.” This alludes to a push by Rep. Peter Roskam and other conservatives wherein Republican leaders would argue that Obama has not presented the “full” nuclear agreement before Congress; it doesn’t include, as Politico reports, “so-called ‘side deals’ that were hashed out between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency.” Until those presumably nefarious “side deals” are sent, the logic goes, the 60-day review period hasn’t begun, and deal opponents will have more time to sway legislators to their side.

House Republican leaders were discussing shifting strategy with the rank-and-file Wednesday afternoon as the rally was going on.

By the end of the day John Boehner could keep his job because that was the strategy:

What the Roskam plan does effectively do is paper over the fact that Congress never could do much to stop this deal with the potent anti-establishment politics that blossomed during the Summer of Trump. Lawmakers who railed against this deal, and now recognize that it’s going through anyway, will transfer the rage of activists like those at Wednesday’s rally toward those familiar spineless, all-talk-no-action, cowardly punching bags, Boehner and McConnell.

And it will work. Not because Boehner and McConnell (and Corker) didn’t make an effort, as they’ll be accused of. The Corker–Cardin framework gave opponents a chance to kill the deal through Congress – a long shot, sure, but better than the alternative, which would have been the deal going through with zero congressional input. But they’re the highest-ranking GOP officials in government right now, and GOP voters unfamiliar with nitpicky federal government procedures will be perfectly willing to blame them for “allowing” this to happen.

Max Fisher explains what’s going on here:

The old and busted GOP plan was to vote on a measure formally disapproving of the Iran nuclear deal. Republicans could express their rejection of the deal, forcing President Obama to veto their resolution. That way they’d get to oppose the deal without actually taking responsibility for finding an alternative. But Obama got more supporters in the Senate than was expected – enough that he won’t have to veto – and the resolution became something of an embarrassment for Republicans.

So now the new hotness among Republicans is that they shouldn’t bother voting to disapprove of the Iran nuclear deal, and instead should vote for a resolution that, according to Politico’s Jake Sherman, “would delay a disapproval vote because they believe Obama has not disclosed some elements of the deal.” The entire caucus is not yet on board, but it looks like they’re moving in this direction.

John Boehner, to save his skin, is on board. So is Ted Cruz. They changed the game:

Republicans, in this new plan, would argue that President Obama didn’t live up to his promise to fully inform Congress about the Iran nuclear deal, so therefore Congress cannot vote on whether to approve the deal.

This is not really true, but that’s beside the point. The point is that Republicans don’t like their current strategy because it means, after they vote on their doomed resolution, they will have conceded the Iran deal as politically legitimate.

This new strategy would allow Republicans to argue in perpetuity that the Iran nuclear deal is somehow illegitimate, without ever actually proving that. It would create a definitionally irresolvable political “controversy” over the deal, allowing Republicans to raise money and hold hearings and go on conservative talk radio for many years to come, making conspiratorial claims about the Obama administration withholding some vital information.

It would look, in other words, a lot like Republicans’ years-long political campaign over Benghazi.

That Benghazi thing never made sense, but it was useful. This is like that:

This new GOP anti-deal strategy would let them avoid the actual substance of the Iran deal, and instead focus on dark claims about self-inspections and the like. This not only lets Republicans direct the focus to talk-radio-friendly conspiracy theories, but also allows them to assert, for years to come, that Obama never followed correct procedure on getting congressional approval, and thus that the Iran deal is illegitimate.

And all you need is an alleged “secret side deal” to make it work:

Republicans’ argument is basically this: President Obama promised to send Congress the full text of the Iran nuclear once it was reached (true), after which Congress has 60 days to review before voting on whether to disapprove of the deal (true), but Obama did not technically complete his end of the bargain (false) because he did not send Congress the text of the “secret side deal” with Iran (complicated). Therefore the 60-day congressional review never happened (false), thus the deal is illegitimate (false).

The alleged “secret side deal” is an agreement between the International Atomic Energy Agency (the UN nuclear watchdog) and Iran over how the IAEA will conduct certain inspections and verification procedures of Iranian facilities, as well as IAEA investigations into past elements of Iran’s nuclear program that may have had a military component.

The IAEA has such agreements with every country where it works, including the United States. Because the IAEA wants as much access as possible, and because countries do not necessarily want the details of their nuclear facilities broadcast to the world, the details of these agreements are typically secret. That is the case with the IAEA’s agreement with Iran.

It is not a “side deal,” nor is its existence secret; the nuclear deal requires the IAEA to monitor Iranian facilities, so naturally the IAEA was going to work out the logistical details of that with Tehran.

Maybe so, but it will do:

Republicans are now pretending that this is all a big surprise and that they have a right to see the complete text of any IAEA agreements. In fact, there is nothing guaranteeing Congress review over IAEA agreements with Iran. The IAEA would never agree to such a thing (fortunately for the US, which has its own agreements with the IAEA), and neither would the Obama administration.

Don’t take my word for it: You can read, for yourself, the law that Congress passed articulating its authority to disapprove the Iran deal. Section 135 describes the congressional review period, and specifically articulates the documents that the Obama administration is required to give Congress. There is nothing in there about the text of IAEA safeguards agreements with Iran.

It seems likely that Republicans will counter this by arguing that they didn’t put that into the law because they didn’t anticipate such IAEA agreements. But, to be clear, this is a lie. The IAEA has safeguards agreements with 180 countries; it is a standard practice. The Iran nuclear deal requires the IAEA to conduct extensive monitoring and verification of Iranian facilities, so by definition it would compel the IAEA to work out safeguards agreements with Iran.

And there’s this:

The next line of Republican argumentation is going to be that, sure, IAEA safeguards agreements are routine, and sure it is standard practice that the text of such agreements is not opened up to curious third parties such as the US Congress. But someone will inevitably leak some prejudicial and selective details to make those agreements look bad… which Republicans will seize on to argue that there are “questions” about this particular IAEA agreement or another and thus they must be granted permission to see it.

But they know this demand would be impossible: The moment the IAEA starts opening up its safeguards agreements to satisfy domestic political controversies in one country or another, its credibility will be devastated.

Imagine you are a head of state in some country with a nuclear program: Would you let in nuclear inspectors, knowing that one day if American lawmakers decide to get up in arms, they could compel the IAEA to release all sorts of secret details about your country’s facilities? Maybe you still would, but maybe you wouldn’t, and that’s a risk the IAEA can’t take.

The controversy is thus by definition impossible to resolve.

Ah, but that’s the whole point:

Republicans can stir up controversy about the IAEA agreements, but the IAEA can never fully address that controversy without publishing documents and thus destroying its own credibility. Thus Republicans know they can hammer at this for years, sending out fundraising emails and going on talk radio to decry the Obama administration’s nefarious dealings, with no fear that the controversy will ever go away.

The future of Republican opposition to the Iran nuclear deal will thus probably look something like the never-ending political circus over the Benghazi attacks.

There will be various conspiracy theories and outrage stories that will live on for years in right-wing media long after they have been debunked. You will hear about “Obama’s secret side deal with the IAEA” from at least one family member at Thanksgiving.

And so it goes:

The point will be to allow Republicans to oppose the Iran nuclear deal not based on the specific text of the deal – anti-deal groups have been losing this argument quite badly – but rather by arguing that the deal is illegitimate on a technicality. They can thus continue to oppose the nuclear deal without having to provide a realistic alternative, and because the controversy is irresolvable they can continue to mine it for years to come. It allows them to evade responsibility on a complex foreign policy issue, which they never really wanted, and settle in as pure opposition.

That’s pretty clever. When the game is over, and you’ve lost, find a way to claim that the game never really started, and then make sure it never can start. You may not win, but you don’t lose. You cannot lose. That’s the plan here, at least in the House. It may not fly in the Senate:

Senator Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said that he agreed the White House had not turned over all documents, but that Republicans were better off expressing disapproval of the accord as quickly and succinctly as possible.

“I think that the best way to express concerns about the documents as well as concerns about the deal itself is to vote to disapprove the deal,” Mr. Corker said at a news conference. “The clock ends on Sept. 17th. The president is going to go ahead and start lifting sanctions.”

That’s the problem. When the game is over, and you’ve lost, well, you’ve actually lost. After that, no one will care what other game you think you’re playing.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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