Iran Debate Shows Growing GOP Conservatism

Preface on the Substance of the Deal: 

The deal that the United States and its allies made with Iran to limit the Iranian nuclear program is far from perfect. Nonetheless, I firmly believe that it was the best result that the United States could get from a bad situation (I've analogized it to being the big blind in Texas hold 'em and drawing a 2-7 off suit—sometimes folding, and losing your blind, is a good decision). 

Given American meddling in Iran during the 20th century with disastrous results for the Iranian people, military action to remove the theoretic government led by Ayatollah Khamenei would simply result in more hatred of the United States and potentially an even worse long term situation in Iran for American interests. 

Alas, given that the Iranian regime is not truly democratic (democratically elected officials have severely truncated powers), the true forces in the Iranian government aren't likely to be moved by sanctions that hurt the Iranian people unless they fear overthrow. 

Thus, absent regime change, a negotiated deal offered the best potential hope for curbing the Iranian nuclear program. As venerable Senators Sam Nunn (D-GA) and Richard Lugar (R-IN) explain, there are no perfect nuclear deals.

What the Deal Tells Us About Today's Politics: 

Substance, aside, however, the debate over the Iran deal tells us a lot about historical changes in American politics over the last 37 years. 

Why do I mention the very specific number of 37 years? Because 37 years ago the Senate debated and ratified the Panama Canal treaties by the bare minimum of 1 vote.  

I see several parallels between the two debates. The American public disliked both the Panama Canal Treaties and the Iran deal. 

A CNN-ORC poll from August 15th indicated that 41% of those queried believed that Congress ought to approve the Iran Deal, while 56% believed that Congress should disapprove. Similarly, a Fox News poll found that only 31% of those polled would approve the deal if they were lawmakers, while 58% would disapprove. 

The polling on the Panama Canal Treaties is a bit less clear—several polls that described amendments that the Senate had added to the treaties indicated plurality or majority support for the treaties with these amendments included—but the majority of polling from March and April of 1978 indicated broad public disapproval (all polling data cited in this blog comes from the iPoll database). 

A March 1978 Harris poll found that 29% of those surveyed favored the Senate approving the 2nd Panama Canal treaty (which gave Panama control of the Canal after the year 2000), and 60% opposed Senate ratification.  An NBC/Associated Press poll from the same month placed those numbers at 35% in favor of ratification and 55% opposition. More broadly, an April CBS/New York Times poll asked whether respondents approved or disapproved of the treaties and found 30% approval and 53% disapproval. 

Additionally, both agreements faced virulent opposition from the right. Ronald Reagan's opposition to the United States relinquishing control of the Panama Canal played a key role in his furious comeback during the 1976 Republican Presidential primary (especially in the crucial North Carolina primary).

Reagan lost eight of the first nine primaries that year, but his victory in North Carolina sustained and energized his campaign. A loss likely would have knocked him from the race. Instead, Reagan rallied beginning in Texas, and almost denied President Ford renomination in a battle that lasted until the Republican convention. 

Similarly, the Fox News poll demonstrated conservative opprobrium for the Iran agreement. A full 83% of Republicans opposed it (vs. only 35% of Democrats). 

In both cases, the President secured enough support in the Senate to uphold the deal. The Senate ratified the Panama Canal treaties by the slim margin of 68-32 (it required 67 votes). Similarly, last week President Obama secured enough commitments from Senate Democrats to uphold a veto of a Congressional resolution of disapproval. It remains possible that Obama can secure enough support for a Senate filibuster (requiring 41 votes), which would kill the resolution of disapproval without it ever reaching his desk. 

There is, however, one stark difference between the two situations. The Panama Canal treaties secured bipartisan support in the Senate. Sixteen of the 38 Senate Republicans voted for ratification, including Senate Minority Leader Howard Baker (R-TN). Many believe that Baker's support for the treaties ended any realistic chance of him winning the 1980 Republican Presidential primary. This Republican support allowed Democrats to overcome the opposition of 10 of the 62 Senate Democrats. 

Today, however, while Democrats remain somewhat divided (a fair number of Northeastern Democrats (especially in the House of Representative) oppose the Iran deal and plan to support the resolution of disapproval), Republicans appear to be unified in opposition. To date, not a single Republican member of Congress has expressed support for the deal (all 54 Republican senators have announced their support for the resolution of disapproval). 

This unified opposition comes in spite of several Republican foreign policy luminaries, including Lugar, an expert on nuclear proliferation, Brent Scowcroft (the National Security Adviser under the first President Bush) and former Secretary of State Colin Powell, supporting the deal. 

What explains the difference in the level of Republican support for the two deals? I'd offer 3 possibilities. The asymmetric polarization of the last 40 years certainly plays a role. Congressional Republicans are dramatically more conservative than they were in 1978. Thus, opposition on the right translates into far greater opposition among Congressional Republicans than it would have thirty-seven years ago. 

Second, during the period beginning after World War II and ending in the 1990s, international agreements, and matters of foreign policy more broadly, tended to avoid being partisan matters. Plenty of intense debate occurred, but it was on ideological grounds, and elected officials viewed these kinds of votes as matters of conscience. 

As Ira Shapiro recounts in The Last Great Senate, Baker knew that his support for the Panama Canal treaties would be politically devastating. Yet, he viewed supporting the treaties to be the statesmanlike and morally appropriate thing to do. His support echoed the crucial support of legendary Michigan Senator Arthur Vandenberg (R-MI) for the international system after World War II. 

Today, however, just about every issue gets caught up in the deep partisan fissures dividing our political class (some of that change, of course, stems from the greater ideological cohesion of the parties). 

A third factor may also contribute to the difference between the two debates. The conservative media and social media machine that plays a major role in Republican politics today did not exist in 1978. Senators voting for the Panama Canal Treaties could expect opposition from conservative outlets and organizations. Yet, they didn't have to worry about 24/7 cable news, talk radio, and the conservative blogosphere widely publicizing and harshly criticizing their support for the treaties.

This change in the media makes it far harder for senators today to deviate from conservative policy preferences without political consequences. Conservative media personalities can be major forces in Republican primaries, and crossing them on a major issue, such as the Iran agreement, can be quite dangerous politically. 

None of this is to argue that legitimate policy qualms are not driving some of the Republican opposition to the Iran agreement. Yet, it seems unlikely that a deal which garners support from the likes of Lugar, Scowcroft, and Powell would not receive support from a single Congressional Republican unless politics and reflexive ideology contributed significantly to the opposition. 

Long term, the partisan divide over Iran indicates that getting bipartisan (and Congressional) support for international agreements on any topic will be quite difficult. It's hard to imagine ANY treaty receiving 67 votes in the Senate in the short or medium term.

Conservatives have long viewed international governance and binding agreements that might limit American flexibility with deep skepticism. As conservative dominance of the Republican party has increased, it has becomes increasingly difficult to get the requisite Republican support for binding international agreements of any sort (In 2012, Republicans even torpedoed a treaty to ban discrimination against people with disabilities, in spite of a plea from party luminary Bob Dole).

The Iran deal reminds us of this reality, and demonstrates yet again the poor match between our increasingly ideological and partisan politics and the constitutional framework for our government. 

Presidents will need to act creatively, and in many cases, unilaterally, to address the increasingly interconnected world given the current state of Congress.