It appears that yesterday, Republican opposition to the New START treaty in the Senate melted down; the treaty is on its way to passage tomorrow with, Rich Lowry says, as many as 75 votes. So what happened here? As late as the end of last week, it appeared that the principled objections to the treaty — specifically, the language of its preamble, which may be read as placing limits on America’s ability to defend itself against nuclear missiles — had the upper hand. Or at least a strong-enough hand either to prevent the treaty from coming to a vote or to deny it the 67 votes needed in the Senate to secure passage of any treaty (two-thirds of senators need to approve a treaty, according to the Constitution).
This is an unnecessary treaty, made with a bad international actor of the second rank whose word cannot be trusted and who does not deserve to be elevated to the level of a bilateral negotiator with the United States. That said, I think the problem the anti-START forces ran into is that the treaty itself is, arguably, anodyne. In other words, it’s unnecessary but not dangerous. And it appears the Obama administration made an effective case to wavering Republican senators that it would be dangerous to reject it. That argument may be specious, but it runs like this: We need Russian cooperation to keep Iran from going nuclear, there are signs we’re getting that cooperation, and it will end instantly if the treaty dies in the Senate. The administration might have dropped some important classified information into the ears of senators to demonstrate the seriousness of the situation. And there are enough intellectuals and policy thinkers on the right who agree that the risk of rejecting the treaty is worse than the risk of signing it that the wavering senators were given all sorts of good reasons for supporting it.
How bad a defeat is this for the conservatives making the case against New START? Opposing political action on the basis of principle or honestly maintained concern is never a defeat; the principle doesn’t end because the vote doesn’t go your way, nor does the concern simply vanish. Just because your view doesn’t prevail doesn’t mean the fight wasn’t worth it. So there’s no ideological cost.
There is a political cost, or rather two political costs, for those whose primary interest was in handing the Obama administration and its foreign policy a defeat. The first is that the relative intensity of the opposition just makes the president’s victory all the sweeter and helps make the argument that he has recovered his political footing after the November election more quickly than anyone expected. That is just a matter of perception — the Republican takeover of the House is looming, and dark days are coming for him legislatively — but perception matters in politics. Some people picked a fight on this with the hope that they could deliver an uppercut to Obama just after he had come off the ropes; they swung and they missed; and he knocked them down instead.
The second cost is that it will raise to some senators and staffers in the GOP the possibility that, on foreign policy at least, they need to be somewhat skeptical of the voices of some on the right whose counsel might now seem untrustworthy and politically imprudent to them.
On the other hand, it’s one thing for Barack Obama to get a lot done in a lame-duck session that no longer reflects the beliefs and ideological makeup of the country at large. Come 2011, there will be five more Republican senators (the sixth new senator, Mark Kirk of Illinois, has already been seated) and 63 new Republicans on Capitol Hill. Obama should savor these victories, because they’re likely to be among the last he sees for a long time.