Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The 47 Senators . . .

Mrs. Iselin: [at meal time] I'm sorry, hon'. Would it really make it easier for you if we settled on just one number?
Sen. John Yerkes Iselin: Yeah. Just one, real, simple number that'd be easy for me to remember.
[Mrs. Iselin watches her husband thump a bottle of Heinz Tomato Ketchup onto his plate]
Sen. John Yerkes Iselin: [addressing the Senate] There are exactly 57 card-carrying members of the Communist Party in the Department of Defense at this time!
-- The Manchurian Candidate (1962) 
This last Sunday, 47 Republican Senators, led by Tom Cotton, sent an open letter to the Iranian government telling them that they won't ratify a nuclear accord and that if a Republican wins in 2016 the agreement is over. OVAH. The Democrats were outrageously outraged over this constitutional overreach.

This left Republicans frantically groping for the Red Phone hotline to Alanis Morissette so that they could use that to explain to her what irony actually looks like. However, government in-fighting aside, is this really historic? Are Republicans actually "crossing a dangerous line" by seeking to directly undermine US foreign policy (the domain of the executive . . . constitutionally speaking)? Does the Iranian theocracy really understand the US Constitution better than, erm, Senate Republicans?

Does Iran Know More About The Constitution Than Republican Senators??
Well, no--no, probably not. Although the Senate Republicans are a diverse lot, as a a whole they are not stupid nor given to egregious flights of fancy. What they are doing is upping the ante--doubling down, as it were--on a particular position that is, right now, the vital beating heart of the GOP: Diametric Opposition to Obama. The base viscerally hates Obama and it is important to them that the GOP fight.

The GOP's brand-damage right now is getting along with Obama (passing a clean DHS bill, vowing not to default on the National Debt) so in order to mitigate that damage they need signifiers that show they are still holding the fort (and sending raiding parties) from the other end of the political spectrum. Since their legislative front isn't moving the dial they've opened a new battle in the foreign policy arena.

In that sense, yeah: this is pretty new (The Omnivore isn't an historian--or even a historian--so feel free to show historical precedent here if you got some). This is a branding exercise for the GOP: they need to find a place to fight where they can have impact (opposing executive orders by withholding funding for things the public generally wants turned out not to be the genius idea Ted Cruz temporarily convinced everyone it was . . . surprisingly).

Is it "unconstitutional"? Ask a constitutional lawyer--preferable one on the Supreme Court or something. Don't believe anything you read on the Internet.

That said, let's take a closer look at the battlefield.

A War Of Obama's Making?
Around 2004 The Omnivore was in London for a few months and got to read some English newspapers about the upcoming US election. One comment that stuck The Omnivore was an opinion piece in, he thinks, The Telegraph, which noted that the number of foreign leaders who were pro-Kerry over Bush was, by itself, an endorsement for Bush. If other nations roundly prefer Leader-X in your country, remember that any time another nation "speaks" it automatically speaks in its own interests firsts. These are not the interests of your country no matter how close they may seem at the time.

There's a reason we call nations allies and not friends (except for Canada, which we refer to as the 51st state when we think they aren't listening).

This is true whether they are endorsing from afar or giving a speech right there in your legislative chamber.

The National Examiner, a conservative-friendly outlet, does, in fact, find the letter-sending somewhat unsettling--but they come down on the side that however regrettable, this battle is "A War of Obama's Making":
It should go without saying that the reason Republicans are doing these things is because they are deeply concerned about a possible Iran deal. But another reason they're acting is because they can. On Iran and before that on immigration, healthcare, and other matters, Obama has pushed his executive authority beyond its proper limits, on the flimsy pretense that he is entitled to act unilaterally if Congress does not pass bills he wants. Could anyone fail to anticipate that in response Congress would stretch its own authority, too?
Over at the conservative HotAir, Noah Rothman (not a HA hardliner) is fairly supportive of the letter but his compatriot Jazz Shaw is somewhat less enamored:
The whole point is that the system seems to be breaking down, and this letter is yet another example of the United States airing its dirty laundry for the rest of the world to see. Under ideal conditions, this would all be hammered out in private between Obama and the Congress and he could then send Kerry to negotiate something they could all live with.
. . .  
Still, I find myself disagreeing with Tom Cotton (who I admire very much, and have since I interviewed him during the election) and wishing that this letter hadn’t been written. If there had to be an official response, a resolution of disapproval of the negotiations (or later, of the deal itself) could have been passed on the Senate floor. That would have at least kept the communications in house, rather than having the Legislative branch dive directly into the mix with Iran. The system of how things need to work to keep Washington functional continues to break down, and this letter did nothing to help with that challenge.
The Omnivore, RINO he is, agrees with this: while all-is-fair, so to speak, this is the congressional equivalent of bringing your family disagreement out in public. It's kind of wrong even if done for the "right reasons."

The question The Omnivore is interested in, though, in this case, is who started it?

Who DID Start It (and What Is IT??)
If it turns out that this is an escalation by Congress--rather than a "matching move" (and there's no objective way to score that--it's gonna be a judgment call for everyone) then it might be fair to ask "Is this actually a war of Obama's making?" Did Obama force Congress into a corner by acting like a tyrant?

Usually "Who started it?" is an argument for school-kids and people trying to gain a rhetorical edge in the Israel-Palestine conflict ("Oh yeah? But if you go back a hundred years--"). In this case, though, if we are going to say it is a 'War of Obama's Making' then we are saying "Well, it's regrettable--but The O-Man forced us."

Is that the case? How would we know?

It depends on which narrative we believe more. There are two primary ones in play here:

  • From The Left: Republican obstructionism has reached all-time highs and a ridiculous level of partisanship. In that environment, Obama, if he wanted to do anything for which he was elected, has to find ways to work around the RoadBlock Party. In other words: THEY started it and Obama had to pass the ACA through reconciliation.
  • From The Right: Obama may have given a good speech once or twice as a moderate--but in office he turned hard-left and would have run the country into twin icebergs of bad policy and worse economics. Republicans, although in the minority, were forced to act as a bloc, desperately groping for the wheel to try to keep the Ship Of State from crashing, burning, and sinking. They're not 'obstructionists'--they're the guys desperately slamming on the breaks as the driver (Obama) accelerates towards a cliff.
What might evidence look like? Well, in both cases we're going to see things like record numbers of filibusters and a dearth of passed legislation. What will make this distinct or not is where/why obstructionism happens--and what events are obstructed. 
That's a Lot Of Obstruction For SOME Reason
We can also look at outcomes (is the economy doing well?) but with the caveat that we don't have the counterfactual: alleging that things would be much better if Romney or McCain were in office is fine as a parlor game--but we can't be sure of anything. That said, if your argument is that things are okay now--but they'd be better in an alternate scenario (like where there was no Stimulus or where General Motors went through a private bankruptcy) you're already in trouble. Not only do you have to show your work but you have to convincingly beat back a lot of potential evidence to the contrary--follow the links.

How About Mission Statements?
If CNN Money thinks a private bankruptcy for GM wouldn't work and 4 out of 5 economist agree the Stimulus did work, then it's probably hard to make a case that Obama's policies were unquestionably designed to bankrupt and destroy the US. We can argue over the ACA (Rate shock coming! Overall healthcare costs going down!)--but overall, it looks like what we see with the jobs report: differing focuses and spin.

What about statements that show intent? The Omnivore wants to look at a couple of these:
  • Rush Limbaugh's "I hope he fails" (Jan 16, 2009): While Rush is not actually the head of the GOP, he is a massively key and important voice. His bald statement came 4 days before Obama was inaugurated. If the narrative is that Obama went hard-left after he was in office then this came way too soon. But Rush is no dummy: maybe he saw it coming?
  •  Newt Didn't See It Coming. The link is to an MSNBC clip that shows Newt talking to Al Sharpton about a "secret meeting" Republicans allegedly had before Obama was even in office where they formed a plan to obstruct and shut him down. Newt doesn't deny the meeting--but he says that Obama came in with bi-partisan rhetoric and if he'd kept to it he could have "split the Republican party." Since he didn't, ramming through legislation as he did (the Stimulus), he opened the door to a showdown with Republicans. Again, if that's the story Republicans are telling, it doesn't quite add up.
  • The Secret Meeting In Question happened the night of Obama's inauguration and would "Show united and unyielding opposition to the president’s economic policies." That seems pretty clear. Again, this is before Obama had a chance to do anything--not the Stimulus, not the ACA, none of that.
  • Blocking Obama's nominees. Opposing Obama's policies are one thing--but blocking nominees is relatively new. It's happened: in the Clinton era there were 9 nominees blocked. In the Bush era? 7. For Obama? More than 30 thus far. Note in the article that the nominee-blocking filibuster is used as a tool to try to force changes to the Dodd-Frank act rather than because they don't like the nominee himself (Republicans generally did like Richard Cordray--perhaps a reason Obama chose him).
  • The Party of Hell No. Just as Limbaugh is not the actual leader of the Republican party, the "mission statement" isn't exactly nailed down (there's the platform--but it's explicitly non-binding). But that link above is pretty explicit that everything needs to STOP. One of their big bugaboos? Cash for Clunkers (does anyone remember that)?
  • Then there's the actual Platform Survey for 2016. The word Obama appears 9 times (Obama, of course, will be out of office then--probably for ever) and only two of those usages are in 'ObamaCare.' An actual potential platform issue is "Do you believe the Republican Party needs to do a better job of exposing the Obama record and his radical liberal agenda?"
For evidence that Obama is hard left, this is what The Omnivore has furiously searched on Google. Here are the top results for Obama far-left, Obama leftist, and so on:

From America's Finest News Source
The Omnivore was not impressed with most of the left-wing Marxist stuff. It didn't hold up well (a lot of the links were like this--The Omnivore mercifully didn't even include them). Stuff like the ACA and the Stimulus should take front and center--but it usually doesn't. Maybe that's because the Stimulus is old news? Because a majority of economists think the Stimulus "worked?" Maybe because the ACA, while it may not be popular, does seem to implement a lot of things people want--which makes calling it Communism problematic anywhere but a friendly crowd. The problems seem to be with the way it was passed--not the specifics of it (save for the mandate).

If the way that ObamaCare, to use an example, was passed is what makes Obama such a contentious and ultra-left-wing president? Then the whole Right-Wing narrative falls apart. The plans for obstructionism were in place long before the ACA came to the table. The Republican narrative is that they tried to work with Obama on it--and he stuffed them--but that's at odds with what we've seen about plans to ruin his agenda whatever it was before he even swore in.

In short, this doesn't seem to "A War of Obama's Making"--the 47 Senator's letter seems like a counter-move, possibly an actual escalation, in a war that has been going on since the national election night in 2008.


  1. Good analysis. Really surprised by the move - it is something I would expect out of the House, not the Senate. Also surprised you didn't connect this with the House Netanyahu visit. Makes two instances of Congress going around Obama on National security matters. A coordinated strategy perhaps?

    1. I did connect it (I mentioned that even if your "friend" is speaking in your legislative chamber, if he''s the head of another country, what he is saying is *automatically* highly suspect). In terms of being a coordinated strategy, I think accusing the GOP of coordination at this time is probably a bit unfair.

      So is calling it "a strategy." I read an article that suggested that the way the Tea Party fights the GOP Establishment is to go outside the congressional rules arena (hence the letter)--but I don't buy that. I think these things (Netanyahu, the letter) are all signifiers of their anti-Obama-ness.

      If you want to know "Who's fighting Obama?" the answer right now is Tom Cotton. A few weeks ago it was "House Republicans." I think this is being done to show the base that despite keeping the lights on (passing necessary legislation) they really do plan to fight.

      Of course this comes at a cost. It looks like Netanyahu's opponent has opened a lead in the last week before the election. The blow-back on the Iran letter is stronger than expected. These are not the actions of a considered strategy. These are more like taking what you can get.

      -The Omnivore

  2. Should have said "International Affairs" rather than "National Security"...