Pictured above: The U.S. Senate’s current official portrait. (Wikipedia)
For Senate Republicans, 47 is the loneliest number.
The backlash that 47 GOP senators are facing after signing their infamous letter telling the Ayatollah of Iran to disregard President Obama’s overtures for a nuclear deal has been sharp and instantaneous. And it’s only getting worse. All across the country, editorials are savaging the senators’ conduct, while foreign policy analysts from both parties shake their heads. And a Politico survey of early state activists in Iowa and New Hampshire show 34 percent of GOP activists condemned the letter, making the outrage about as bipartisan as it can be in these polarized times.
Just incredible. I thought I’d become numb to GOP petty sabotage years ago, but this letter is something else. Writing a letter to undermine our President before a foreign power — and an adversary, no less! — is a new low for the GOP.
Senator Dick Durbin, when he lamented the letter, noted that, “politics used to stop at the water’s edge.” That hasn’t been completely true in recent history — Nancy Pelosi visited the Assad regime in Syria against the Bush Administration’s wishes, and two Democratic lawmakers flew to Iraq in a misguided attempt to protest the — admittedly disastrous — war that was in the making. But this letter by far surpasses all of that in its nerve.
Defenders of this letter try to muddy the situation by pointing out that Congress has a role in foreign policy, and that the senators’ message to the Ayatollah that a future President can undo an executive deal is technically true. But none of that diminishes the scandal. Yes, Congress has a role in foreign policy, and we vigorously debate our actions abroad. Sometimes, Congress will vote down a treaty the President favors, or pass a resolution that complicates his agenda.
That’s fine. But writing to the Ayatollah of Iran to make our Commander-in-Chief look handcuffed and ineffective is a devastating precedent. It diminishes the President in the eyes of our allies and our enemies, and therefore harms his ability to advance our interests and keep the country safe.
What’s even harder to believe is the carefree way in which so many GOP senators signed the letter. Quite a few of them did it on a lark, according to Politico, not giving their signatures much thought as they rushed to catch their flights home before a blizzard.
“It was kind of a very rapid process. Everybody was looking forward to getting out of town because of the snowstorm,” John McCain, one of the 47 signers, said of the letter. “I think we probably should have had more discussion about it, given the blowback that there is.”
Senator Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin, also threw in his own non-apology statement of regret. “If there was any regret, tactically, it probably would have been better just to have it be an open letter addressed to no one.”
The fact that McCain is downplaying the letter is especially telling because he’s shown a flagrant disregard for Senate decorum in the past. When he was caught playing online poker on the Senate floor during a 2013 hearing on Syria, he refused to apologize, instead lamenting that he lost thousands of dollars. But this letter is shameful enough for him to want to downplay his role in it.
The fateful 47 are being eviscerated by their hometown newspapers, as they should be. Senator Rob Portman of Ohio faced scathing editorials from the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the Cincinnati Enquirer, papers that backed him 2010 campaign. “A disgraceful decision,” the Plain Dealer called it. The Cincinnati Enquirer was a little more forgiving, calling it an error that Portman made because “facing re-election, he’s nervous.”
Next door in Illinois, GOP Senator Mark Kirk is also feeling the heat. “Our expectations were higher of Kirk,” said the Peoria Journal Star. Mark Kirk will face re-election in 2016 in the President’s home state, which Obama won by 17 points in 2012 compared to Kirk’s 1.5 percent margin in 2010.
And it’s not just a few Republican-leaning newspapers that are piling on. Republican operatives from the Bush administration have criticized the unprecedented intervention. George W. Bush’s chief speechwriter condemned the move, as did Richard Haas, a foreign policy advisor in both Bush administrations. It’s counterproductive, they said, but it’s also a terrible precedent. And as Haas pointed out, what would Republicans say if Democrats did this to a GOP Commander-in-Chief?
A Letter Rooted in Neocon Doctrine
Of course, not everyone is condemning the letter — or the senator behind it. “Tom Cotton is the most powerful man in Washington,” wrote Erick Erickson of RedState.com, the most widely read conservative blog in America.
“The constitution requires a two-thirds vote for any treaty to be ratified,” Erickson pointed out in his defense of Senator Cotton, the Arkansas Republican who spearheaded the letter. “An Iranian deal would not get a majority vote, let alone a two-thirds vote.”
See if you can spot the verbal sleight of hand in Erickson’s assertion. Yes, Congress must approve treaties … but “deals”? Executive deals are signed all the time between leaders. Bush did it, Clinton did it, and even Ronald Reagan did it when his administration wasn’t illegally supplying weapons to … Iran.
After leading off with this fallacy, Erickson proceeded to dismiss the controversy: “The outrage from Democrats was immediately.”
That wasn’t even an English sentence. But to get a real sense of the paranoia and aversion to facts that drove the letter, consider the author it came from.
Tom Cotton has been in the Senate for barely two months. But in his campaign last year he astonished observers with his assertion that ISIS was in cahoots with Mexican drug cartels. He’s thundered that the only problem with Guantanamo Bay is that there are too many empty cells. “As far as I’m concerned, every last one of them can rot in hell,” Cotton said of the detainees. “But as long as they don’t do that, they can rot in Guantanamo Bay.”
Does Cotton know that dozens and potentially hundreds of the Guantanamo detainees have been cleared after years of being tortured and imprisoned? Does he care? Most likely, the thought hasn’t crossed his mind. In the mold of Dick Cheney and neocons like him, Tom Cotton doesn’t seem to concern himself with the nuances of the people he wants to bomb or imprison.
The Irony in The Outrage
There’s something darkly amusing about all of this controversy being caused in 2015 by a southern, reactionary senator named “Cotton.”
But there’s an even more perfect takeaway from all this. 47 GOP senators signed the letter. That’s a number that’s gotten Republicans in trouble in recent years.
“There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what,” Mitt Romney famously — but surreptitiously — said in 2012. “There are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent on government, who believe that they are victims … My job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”
Two months after the video came out, Americans showed they didn’t like Romney any more than he liked them. He lost the presidency decisively, receiving (isn’t it perfect?) 47 percent of the vote.
Now 47 GOP senators have earned themselves a new kind of condemnation by signing Cotton’s letter. But the irony doesn’t stop there. å
In 2016, Democrats are sure to run ads targeting these senators over their communication with the Ayatollah. The most vulnerable of the signers will be the seven Republicans facing reelection in states that were carried twice by Obama (Mark Kirk of Illinois, New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte, Wisconsin’s Ron Johnson, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Rob Portman of Ohio, Marco Rubio of Florida, and Chuck Grassley of Iowa).
If all seven of those Republicans are toppled, the Senate GOP will be whittled down to a minority of — you guessed it — 47 members.
Shame on Democrats if they don’t absolutely pummel these pygmies in 2016 over this letter. And everlasting shame on each of the 47 senators behind it.
William Dahl is a recent graduate of The College of William and Mary, where he majored in Government and studied abroad in La Plata, Argentina. He has worked for community foundations in Argentina and Miami dedicated to community engagement and prosecution for human rights abuses. A native Virginian, he moved to Baltimore in 2013 to join a financial research firm, where he enjoys being able to write on the side.