Headlines on the “Iran letter” Senator Tom Cotton and 46 GOP colleagues released this week are using words like “propaganda,” “clash,” “treason,” and “blowback.” The commentary on the “open letter” purporting to warn Iran’s leadership that a deal on its nuclear program wouldn’t survive the end of the Obama presidency has focused largely on the letter’s legal status and its effect on American diplomacy. But compelling though these discussion points are, they overlook several of the letter’s key consequences—and its potential opportunities.
What does Cotton’s dissenting letter—and its backstory—reveal?
A Young Guard has brought Tea Party tactics to the Senate.
For the past several election cycles, we’ve watched a group of novice House conservatives buck party norms and elders and grow steadily stronger and louder despite sanctions from within their party, such as threats of primaries and loss of committee seats. Inside-the-Beltway observers predicted, for example, that Representatives Louie Gohmert, Justin Amash, and Mick Mulvaney would stage their fights over symbols rather than substance, and ultimately would fold when confronted by party leadership.
These same observers were confident that Tea Partiers would never take on core GOP sacred cows, such as national security.
They were wrong. And now the Senate has the largest contingent of ex-House members in its ranks since 1899. Six of them are new Republicans who cut their teeth in Tea Party-era politics: Senators Cotton, Capito (WV), Gardner (CO), Gaines (MT), Lankford (OK), and Cassidy (LA). They have brought with them to the Senate a sharper-edged discourse and a tendency to focus at least as much on energizing their base as on passing legislation–hallmarks of the House in recent years.
Jack Goldsmith, a senior Bush Administration national security lawyer in the years immediately following 9/11, wrote that “it appears from the letter that the Senators do not understand our constitutional system… in a letter purporting to teach a constitutional lesson, the error is embarrassing.” But one hallmark of the Young Guard is that they are not cowed by the GOP establishment on national security – or much else. In fact, one thing the seven Republicans who declined to sign the letter (who are diverse by age, gender and geography) had in common is their card-carrying membership in the pre-Tea Party GOP establishment: Susan Collins (ME), Jeff Flake (AZ), Lisa Murkowski (AK), Bob Corker (TN), Lamar Alexander (TN), Thad Cochran (MS), and Dan Coats (IN).
Policy wonks and Democrats were quick to dismiss the letter as a failure and an embarrassment. “[M]ight paradoxically help Obama,” said Dan Drezner of the Fletcher School in The Washington Post. “Traitors,” added the New York Daily News, a sentiment echoed by editorial boards from coast to coast.
But policy wonks and Democrats weren’t the letter’s audience. It was a firm reminder to Senate leadership that it may take bills off the calendar but it can’t take Senators out of the media – a calling card for a new generation of members. And it was a rousing nod to party bases who are anti-Obama, oppose negotiating with hostile powers, and heartily endorse the rhetoric around a new generation of leaders taking over Washington.
Middle East diplomacy is now thoroughly integrated into the maelstrom of partisanship.
The letter’s signatories confirm for the Senate what poll after poll shows for the American people: opinion on who the US should talk to, and with whom we should ally, is now strongly segregated along party lines. What’s more, a string of recent events—from previous efforts to push new sanctions on Iran to last summer’s Gaza war to the Netanyahu invitation and the White House response—has moved the issues out of the dismal basement to which partisan national security issues are usually confined and into the spotlight.
Support for Israel, and specifically Netanyahu’s Israel, has become a top-tier gut check for the religious right. At the same time, anger at Netanyahu and discomfort with Israeli actions has spread perceptibly from the left to the center of the Democratic party.
What does this mean for partisan politics? In short, Iran is and will remain a partisan issue that functions as much as a referendum on American identities as it does a central concern in foreign relations.
This intensification of partisan polarization brings with it, paradoxically, new openings for cross-partisan alliances.
Each party contains important minority views within it. And especially in the Senate, neither party can impose its will alone.
We see this playing out with the Senate bills on Iran. They are bipartisan and spring from unlikely bedfellows: one sanctions bill originated by Senator Corker, bucking “the letter’s” GOP cohort, and another results from the effort of Senators Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Menendez (D-NJ). An unexpected pairing—Senators Rand Paul and Barbara Boxer—put forward legislation opposing sanctions.
There’s precedent for these alliances on other recent issues. On defense spending, conservative budget hawks have partnered with liberals and bucked their own leadership to block a repeal of the Pentagon budget sequester, and in the wake of Ferguson, Senate Democrats and Republicans have teamed up on efforts to reduce transfers of military equipment to local police forces after Ferguson.
So where do we go from here?
The future will hold more loud commentary from a new generation of elected officials interested in asserting themselves who are relatively unconcerned with establishment niceties. But the future will also be at least as kind to politicians and advocates who see through polarizing rhetoric to focus on relationship-building and smart analyses of specific policy considerations.
Paradoxically, the louder the yelling, the more valuable the political skills required to seek out and recruit untraditional partners. We used to call that diplomacy.