Commentary Magazine


Topic: bipartisanship

The Iran Deal Bill and the Myth of Bipartisanship

There will be a good deal of self-congratulation in Washington in the coming days over the passage of a Senate bill giving Congress the right to vote on the upcoming nuclear deal with Iran. Majority Leader Senator Mitch McConnell has pushed the bill sponsored by Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Corker and ranking member Ben Cardin through the legislative gauntlet. The leadership tells us the bill is a tribute to their willingness to put aside their differences as it passed by a whopping 98-1 margin. In doing so, they have said that though it is not ideal, it is better than nothing. But they are wrong. Though the principle of forcing a vote on the most important treaty negotiated by the U.S. in a generation is important, the toothless compromise they have accepted is a sham that virtually guarantees the deal’s ratification. The bipartisanship that everyone will celebrate is nothing more than a Republican acknowledgment that President Obama can’t and won’t be stopped.

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There will be a good deal of self-congratulation in Washington in the coming days over the passage of a Senate bill giving Congress the right to vote on the upcoming nuclear deal with Iran. Majority Leader Senator Mitch McConnell has pushed the bill sponsored by Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Corker and ranking member Ben Cardin through the legislative gauntlet. The leadership tells us the bill is a tribute to their willingness to put aside their differences as it passed by a whopping 98-1 margin. In doing so, they have said that though it is not ideal, it is better than nothing. But they are wrong. Though the principle of forcing a vote on the most important treaty negotiated by the U.S. in a generation is important, the toothless compromise they have accepted is a sham that virtually guarantees the deal’s ratification. The bipartisanship that everyone will celebrate is nothing more than a Republican acknowledgment that President Obama can’t and won’t be stopped.

Much of the backslapping about the passage of the bill is rooted in frustration about years of gridlock in which the two parties — or rather President Obama and Congress — have been hopelessly at odds. The 2013 government shutdown over the inclusion of an effort to repeal ObamaCare in the budget stands as a monument to just how far both Republicans and Democrats are willing to go to get their way. Thus, anything that can be portrayed as an effort by the sides to take half a loaf rather than none is seen as a triumph for common sense. There is something to be said for that way of thinking on a lot of issues. But what has happened during the debate about the nuclear threat from Iran illustrates that much of what passes for bipartisanship is merely an effort by which the losers pretend they haven’t been taken to the cleaners while the winners agree to let them engage in such a charade.

That is exactly what has happened on the Iran deal bill.

It should be recalled that coming into 2015, it appeared that there was an overwhelming bipartisan majority in both Houses of Congress for increased sanctions on Iran that would strengthen the administration’s hand in the nuclear negotiations. But President Obama had no interest in getting tough with his negotiating partners and bitterly opposed the idea. Once it became clear that he would make enough concessions to the Iranians to entice them to agree to a framework deal, the focus of those seeking to respond to events was on passing a bill that would force the president to submit any agreement to Congress for ratification. The president was as opposed to that idea as he was to more sanctions arguing that he need not be trammeled by the Constitution’s requirement that any treaty receive a two-thirds positive vote in the Senate.

The White House campaign to thwart critics of the Iran deal at first focused on generating partisan Democratic umbrage at the Republicans for inviting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak against appeasement. Once the deal was done, that effort morphed into a more straight-forward one that aimed at rallying Democrats behind the president’s chief foreign policy goal: détente with Iran. Yet even many Democrats were queasy about the idea of not being able to vote on the Iran deal.

The White House recognized this and instead of heading off a vote altogether it concentrated its efforts on persuading Democrats to prevent the Republicans from drafting the measure in such a way as to make it meaningful. Thus, the final draft to emerge from the committee did not include any provisions that would make the administration accountable for Iranian compliance or altered behavior. When the president saw that a “clean” bill would be passed with a veto-proof majority, he happily signaled that he would sign rather than veto it.

In theory, this should make everyone happy and be a triumph for the ethos of bipartisanship. But the reason why the White House likes the clean bill is precisely because its passage does nothing to interfere with a policy of appeasement of Iran. By excluding any provisions from the bill that would ensure that Iran stop supporting terrorism and threatening Israel’s destruction and ensure a stricter crackdown on their nuclear program, there is no real accountability to the process. Even more than that, by allowing the measure to be framed as a Congressional vote rather than a treaty ratification, it gives the president the ability to veto the eventual vote on the deal and for it survive with only a one-third plus one margin to prevent an override.

As it stands, the Iran deal provides Iran with two paths to a bomb, one by easily evading its restrictions (which may not be enforced with tough inspections that Iran won’t allow) and another by patiently waiting for it to expire all the while continuing its nuclear research. In addition, there is no meaningful provision for snapping back sanctions in the event of Iran violating its word either in the deal or in the Congressional bill. And that’s assuming this or a future Democratic administration would ever admit that Iran was cheating.

Thus, all we are left with here is a charade of accountability that will let members of Congress vote on a deal with little likelihood that this will do anything to stop it. By accepting this as better than nothing all the Republicans are telling us is that they know they can’t beat Obama but want to show they’ve tried.

In 2013, centrists and members of the Republican leadership derided the absolutist stand of Senator Ted Cruz and others who supported the shutdown as being both suicidal and unrealistic. They were probably right in that instance but this time it is Cruz and his fellow presidential candidate Senator Marco Rubio who have tried unsuccessfully to strengthen the will are the ones who are correct. In this case, something isn’t better than nothing since it gives the Iran deal the pretense of being ratified by Congress without any real oversight. If the Congressional leadership wanted to provide us with a better example of why bipartisanship isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, they could not have done better than this bill.

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Like Obama’s Iran Deal, Corker Bill May Be Worse Than Nothing

As the Corker-Menendez bill requiring a congressional vote on the nuclear deal with Iran heads to the floor of the Senate this week, many in the Republican leadership are urging their caucus to pass the bill just as it is without amendments. Having forged a compromise with some Democrats to get it through the foreign affairs committee by a unanimous vote, Chairman Bob Corker believes his bill is still “pretty strong” because it allows Congress a voice on the Iran deal. He and other GOP leaders believe changes that would force the administration to hold Iran accountable for its support for terrorism or even to change it so as to make it a treaty would scuttle the entire effort. They may be right about that since the administration and many Democrats would like nothing better than to let the president cut a deal with Iran without Congress having any say in the matter. But without such changes, it’s fair to ask whether Corker’s assessment of his bill is any different than Obama’s deal. Is a weak Iran bill better than no bill at all? Maybe not.

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As the Corker-Menendez bill requiring a congressional vote on the nuclear deal with Iran heads to the floor of the Senate this week, many in the Republican leadership are urging their caucus to pass the bill just as it is without amendments. Having forged a compromise with some Democrats to get it through the foreign affairs committee by a unanimous vote, Chairman Bob Corker believes his bill is still “pretty strong” because it allows Congress a voice on the Iran deal. He and other GOP leaders believe changes that would force the administration to hold Iran accountable for its support for terrorism or even to change it so as to make it a treaty would scuttle the entire effort. They may be right about that since the administration and many Democrats would like nothing better than to let the president cut a deal with Iran without Congress having any say in the matter. But without such changes, it’s fair to ask whether Corker’s assessment of his bill is any different than Obama’s deal. Is a weak Iran bill better than no bill at all? Maybe not.

The purpose of the Corker-Menendez bill is a noble one. Faced with an administration that was determined not only to press ahead with the most important diplomatic pact signed by the United States in a generation but to do so without allowing Congress to play its constitutionally mandated role to ratify such a deal, the Senate needed to act. What Corker and Robert Menendez, a stern critic of the administration’s Iran policy and the former ranking Democrat on the committee, intended to do was to create a mechanism by which the Senate could act as a possible brake on the president’s appeasement of the Islamist regime.

But over the course of the debate about the bill a couple of things soon became clear.

One was that the bipartisan consensus within Congress about the need to stop Iran’s nuclear program quickly broke down once the president made it clear to Democrats that he considered support for his Iran policy as a litmus test of party loyalty. That was first illustrated by the White House’s attempt to orchestrate a boycott of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s address to a joint session of Congress on the issue. But even after that effort flopped, the administration worked hard to twist the arms of wavering Democrats in order to persuade them to oppose a tough Iran sanctions bill that would have put more heat on Tehran to make concessions as well as the Corker-Menendez proposal. While a veto-proof majority on both ideas seemed likely a few months ago, once the president laid down the law to liberals on Iran, it was obvious that Corker would have to start making compromises if his bill was going to succeed.

The second was that once the negotiations over passing Corker-Menendez started, it was also clear that it was the president and the not the Republican majority that held all the cards in the bargaining. The president pushed ahead to get a weak framework deal with Iran agreed to by the end of March, a development that made critics wonder if they were going to be able to weigh in on the issue before it was too late.

More than that, the administration realized that the way the Corker bill was structured gave them an enormous advantage. The Constitution requires a two-thirds affirmative vote to pass a treaty. But by calling this far-reaching pact a mere agreement between the Iranians and the West, President Obama sought to evade that rule altogether. He wanted to have no vote at all on the deal but once he realized that even Democrats didn’t feel comfortable going along with a complete abnegation of their constitutional duties, the president’s path was clear. So long as it didn’t declare the Iran deal a treaty, passing Corker-Menendez actually served the administration’s purpose.

Provided the bill was stripped of measures that would provide some real accountability on the content of a deal that offers Iran two paths to a bomb—one by easily evading its weak restrictions and another by abiding by it and patiently waiting for it to expire—a congressional vote along these lines would give a legitimacy to the process that the administration needed. Moreover, the Corker bill created a reverse confirmation process by which the president needed only 34 votes—enough to sustain a veto of a vote that rejected the deal—rather than 67 in order for it to become law. Thus, after loyal Democrats on the committee got Corker to take out provisions that would make it more onerous for the administration to defend a weak deal, the president signaled that he would sign the bill.

The bill is now being praised as a rare example of bipartisanship. But though Corker’s intentions may have been good, the result is not. No matter how bad the Iran deal is, it’s obvious that the president will be able to pressure enough Democrats to back him to sustain a veto. If his bill doesn’t provide real accountability and actually gives the president a path to passage of a deal with only 34 Democratic votes, then all their effort will have been for nothing. Indeed, it will be worse than nothing since Obama will be able to say that he has given Congress a say even if he has vetoed their rejection of the deal. That’s why rather than being another suicide charge in the manner of the 2013 government shutdown, efforts to amend the Corker bill are actually the right thing to do.

In particular, Senator Ron Johnson’s amendment that would force the Senate to treat the Iran deal as a treaty that would require the normal two-thirds majority for passage deserves the support of the chamber. So, too, do measures proposed to require the administration to certify that Iran is no longer supporting terrorism (a point that was strengthened this past weekend as Israel attempted to interdict arms shipments from Iran to Hezbollah).

Democrats may not be willing to support strengthening the bill, but contrary to the assertions of its supporters, the “clean” bill as it currently stands may be worse than nothing at all. Efforts to compel senators take a stand on treaty status and terrorism may be the last chance to put them on record as being willing to support a measure that would actually prevent the president from sacrificing U.S. security and the stability of the Middle East on the altar of his vain pursuit of détente with Iran. These amendments may be poison pills, but the real poison is a bill that will give a seal of approval on a tragic foreign policy blunder.

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Questioning Obama on Nuclear Iran Is Not Partisanship

After weeks of the debate about the Iranian nuclear threat being discussed almost exclusively from the frame of reference of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s alleged partisan plotting with House Speaker John Boehner, the speech he gave today may have provided something of a shock to many of those observing it. Netanyahu went out of his way to pay tribute to President Obama’s record of support for Israel (while pointedly ignoring the equally numerous instances in which he has sought to undermine its government and tilt the diplomatic playing field against it) and to celebrate the tradition of bipartisan backing for the Jewish state. More to the point, he eloquently laid out the flaws in the nuclear deal being negotiated by the administration with Iran. But in response, all the administration and its apologists in Congress (many of whom petulantly boycotted the speech) were able to muster as a response was to repeat the same talking points they’ve been using about the speech being partisan. But while they’re right that Netanyahu was criticizing an administration policy, there’s a different between dissent and partisanship.

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After weeks of the debate about the Iranian nuclear threat being discussed almost exclusively from the frame of reference of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s alleged partisan plotting with House Speaker John Boehner, the speech he gave today may have provided something of a shock to many of those observing it. Netanyahu went out of his way to pay tribute to President Obama’s record of support for Israel (while pointedly ignoring the equally numerous instances in which he has sought to undermine its government and tilt the diplomatic playing field against it) and to celebrate the tradition of bipartisan backing for the Jewish state. More to the point, he eloquently laid out the flaws in the nuclear deal being negotiated by the administration with Iran. But in response, all the administration and its apologists in Congress (many of whom petulantly boycotted the speech) were able to muster as a response was to repeat the same talking points they’ve been using about the speech being partisan. But while they’re right that Netanyahu was criticizing an administration policy, there’s a different between dissent and partisanship.

As I wrote earlier, Netanyahu did a masterful job of laying out the basic flaws in a policy based on trusting in the ability of a tyrannical, terror-supporting anti-Semitic regime that seeks regional hegemony to reform itself and, in the president’s naïve phrase, “get right with the world.” President Obama campaigned in 2012 promising that any deal with Iran would ensure the end of its nuclear program. Once reelected, he embarked on secret talks that ensured that it would be able to keep its nuclear infrastructure and eventually be able to build a bomb after a relatively brief “breakout” period. The latest twist in the talks, revealed not by an Israeli “betrayal” but administration leaks, is that the administration is begging Iran to sign an agreement that will let it keep thousands of centrifuges and be given a sunset clause on sanctions that will eventually allow it to build a bomb even if it observes the terms of the deal, something that history tells us is more a fantasy than a policy.

Nor did Netanyahu fail to offer an alternative as critics claimed since he pointed out that a return to the pre-2013 policy of inflicting tough sanctions and isolation that Obama precipitately abandoned offers the only chance of ending the nuclear peril short of war.

These are deeply serious arguments that require answers and ought to persuade thinking Republicans and Democrats to back the Kirk-Menendez sanctions bill that would strengthen the administration’s hand in the talks while also requiring it to submit any deal to Congress for approval.

But instead of answering these cogent arguments, all we heard from Democrats that boycotted the speech or administration sources was more of what they’ve been telling us since January about Netanyahu plotting with the Republicans or insulting the president. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi even went so far as to claim it was “an insult to the intelligence of the United States,” a charge that might better be hurled at a president intent on building détente with Iran while pretending to be working against nuclear proliferation.

But let’s give them the respect they weren’t prepared to accord Netanyahu and try to unpack the charge of partisanship.

Let’s start by conceding that the invitation from House Speaker John Boehner was an end run around the administration and was bound to ruffle feathers. But the much-publicized umbrage about the alleged breach in protocol was entirely disingenuous. The White House’s anger had nothing to do with partisanship and everything to do with discomfort with the prospect of the Israeli leader weighing in on behalf of a sanctions bill that already looked to have a chance at a veto-proof majority in both the House and the Senate.

Support for that bill was a bipartisan affair with the most vocal advocate being Democratic Senator Robert Menendez who publicly challenged Obama to his face on the issue for claiming that the only reason members were backing it was to please donors (a dog whistle for Jews). But the president used the opening that Boehner and Netanyahu provided him to falsely claim the entire issue was a partisan plot against his presidency. Some in the Congressional Black Caucus even went so far as to assert that it was a racist insult against the first African-American president.

We heard more of the same today from Democrats eager to avoid discussing the facts about the Iran negotiations and the nuclear threat.

But let’s be clear here. There is a difference between questioning a president’s policies and taking sides in an ongoing partisan war between Republicans and Democrats. The scores of Democrats like Menendez that believe the president is leading us in the wrong direction on Iran aren’t doing the bidding of Boehner or the Republican National Committee. They are simply demanding that the president do the right while sticking to the promises he made when they were working to reelect him.

We can’t blame the president for not liking Netanyahu’s speech. Being confronted with the truth isn’t pleasant when what you want is to avoid a debate about the issue altogether. But while Obama deserves the respect due to anyone in that high office, dissent from our Dear Leader’s point of view is not the same thing as partisanship. Opposition to Iran’s nuclear dreams wasn’t any more of a partisan issue than support for Israel has been–until, that is, Barack Obama and his obedient cheering section made it one. If anyone deserves blame for injecting that virus into this discussion it is the president.

Those who want to stick to this line of argument aren’t making a point about defending the bipartisan coalition for Israel. They are seeking to help Obama avoid discussing the reality of an Iran appeasement policy.

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An Obama-Gohmert Gridlock Alliance?

As a new Congress was sworn in today, the White House fired the first shot over the Republican leadership’s bow when spokesman Josh Earnest indicated that President Obama would veto a bill authorizing the Keystone XL oil pipeline. Considering that this is one of the first items the GOP-controlled House and Senate will consider in the coming days, the president’s warning that he will veto it no matter what it looks like when passed put a fork in any happy talk about cooperation or bipartisan problem solving. Though many Democrats are unhappy with Obama’s clear appetite for confrontation with Republicans even over a measure that is largely popular with the public, the president is not without some allies in his effort to prevent the House and the Senate from accomplishing anything in the next two years. The 25 Republican House dissidents who voted against John Boehner’s reelection as speaker of the House stand ready to assist the White House in an effort to continue the war to the death between the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

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As a new Congress was sworn in today, the White House fired the first shot over the Republican leadership’s bow when spokesman Josh Earnest indicated that President Obama would veto a bill authorizing the Keystone XL oil pipeline. Considering that this is one of the first items the GOP-controlled House and Senate will consider in the coming days, the president’s warning that he will veto it no matter what it looks like when passed put a fork in any happy talk about cooperation or bipartisan problem solving. Though many Democrats are unhappy with Obama’s clear appetite for confrontation with Republicans even over a measure that is largely popular with the public, the president is not without some allies in his effort to prevent the House and the Senate from accomplishing anything in the next two years. The 25 Republican House dissidents who voted against John Boehner’s reelection as speaker of the House stand ready to assist the White House in an effort to continue the war to the death between the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Of course, the 25 GOP dissenters led by Representatives Louie Gohmert of Texas and Dan Webster of Florida view themselves as the president’s most implacable foes. Their dissatisfaction with Boehner stems from what they view as his readiness to make deals with the Democrats when what they want from their leader is a scorched earth policy with respect to the White House. But despite their mutual hostility, Obama and the Gohmert Republicans have a common agenda. Just as the president has no intention of working with Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on anything substantive, these Tea Partiers are intent on preventing anything that smacks of compromise. Indeed, these members may turn out to be the president’s last line of defense against a congressional leadership that hopes to put the onus for gridlock on Obama.

After all the huffing and puffing from some on the right, the effort to unseat Boehner as speaker today was written off by many as a flop. Though 25 Republican members failed to vote for their party’s leader, Boehner’s victory was never in doubt. Aided by the absence of a number of members from New York who were attending Mario Cuomo’s funeral and others who were kept away by bad weather, the final result left Boehner with a clear majority of those present (216 out of 408 there) if not of the entire House. But while the 25 anti-Boehner dissidents were a motley crew with no leader or anything remotely resembling a credible alternative candidate, the speaker was given a reminder that a not-insignificant faction of the House Republican conference sees anything other than efforts to defund offending government departments as weakness.

It can be argued that Boehner is actually in a stronger position today than he was two years ago when he was last sworn in. The increased majority won by Republicans has created a new GOP caucus that has a larger faction of reliable supporters of the speaker and his effort to govern rather than merely obstruct. Though the 25 dissenters outnumber those who voted against Boehner in January 2013, Boehner may well have more support now than he did then among Republicans.

But the ability of Gohmert, Webster, and others who lust only for combat with the White House to tie Boehner up in knots should not be underestimated and the speaker election illustrated the determination of his foes. Though there was never a chance that anyone other than Boehner would win, had so many members not been absent, the Tea Party might have been able to force a second ballot. That means that in the coming months there may be moments when obstructionists on the right will force Boehner to rely on Democratic votes to get things passed that he needs.

That creates the possibility of a perfect storm in which the right and a left led by the president will seek to forestall any genuine effort to compromise and pass tax bills or any of the other bills for which a bipartisan majority might be found.

Make no mistake about the president’s willingness to cut deals with Boehner and McConnell. The Keystone veto threat is just the tip of the iceberg of confrontation. If the president won’t compromise on an issue that he used to represent as not a particularly big deal, then there is no chance that will do so on other more important topics. With nothing to lose and imbued with the belief that the way to carve out a legacy is by executive orders and memoranda rather than compromise legislation, Obama isn’t looking for ways to accommodate Republicans. Instead, he is hoping that the Gohmert Republicans will hamstring any efforts to get majority support for bills long before legislation finds its way to his desk for him to veto.

Having spent the last Congress successfully branding the GOP leadership as a bunch of obstructionists, the truth is, Obama is actually hoping that his Tea Party allies will prevent Boehner from fulfilling his vow to pass legislation that a Senate controlled by his party won’t be burying as it did in the past four years. The real obstructionist here is a president who is so eager for confrontation that he can’t even wait until Keystone is passed to threaten a veto. The test for Boehner will be in whether he can sufficiently marginalize the gang of 25 and their sympathizers before they team up with Obama to replicate the last two years of gridlock.

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Why Politics Can’t Stop At the Water’s Edge

 Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has led many Americans to re-evaluate President Obama’s mockery of those Republicans like Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin’s warnings about the geo-strategic threat that Vladimir Putin’s regime posed to the West. It turns out that the administration’s assumptions about not only Russia but also about the basic principles of U.S. foreign policy were mistaken. Not only did the magic of Barack Obama’s personality fail to tame Putin, Iran, Syria or North Korea. As our Abe Greenwald noted yesterday, the administration’s belief that America had transcended history and that the use of force was ineffective has again been thoroughly exploded.

But rather than prompt a far-reaching debate about the lessons to be drawn from this episode, many pundits, not all of whom are knee-jerk Obama defenders are calling for Americans to pipe down about whether the policies of the past five years are partly responsible for the mess in Eastern Europe as well as the fiasco in Syria, not to mention the ongoing administration attempt to forge a new détente with Iran. Instead, we are being told to be quiet and to let America speak with one voice, lest Putin or any other foe be encouraged by criticism of Obama. Not for the first time, Arthur Vandenberg’s famous 1947 quote in which he chided Republican critics of President Harry Truman’s foreign policy that “we must stop partisan politics at the water’s edge” is being disinterred in order to give the 44th president some respite from the beating he has been taking from conservatives about his policies. Though, as Robert Lieber wrote last month in the Washington Post, Democrats have ignored that principle in the last decade, Joe Scarborough, MSNBC’s token conservative is sounding that bipartisan theme both on “Morning Joe” and in a Politico op-ed. Scarborough argues that, “There is nothing more frightening to our enemies than a strong, unified American voice.” That’s true. But in the absence of leadership from the president and the administration, such a stance is impossible. Though loyalty to country must always trump partisanship, the effort to suppress a debate about foreign policy at a time when it is desperately needed is antithetical to the cause of creating that “strong, unified American voice.”

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 Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has led many Americans to re-evaluate President Obama’s mockery of those Republicans like Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin’s warnings about the geo-strategic threat that Vladimir Putin’s regime posed to the West. It turns out that the administration’s assumptions about not only Russia but also about the basic principles of U.S. foreign policy were mistaken. Not only did the magic of Barack Obama’s personality fail to tame Putin, Iran, Syria or North Korea. As our Abe Greenwald noted yesterday, the administration’s belief that America had transcended history and that the use of force was ineffective has again been thoroughly exploded.

But rather than prompt a far-reaching debate about the lessons to be drawn from this episode, many pundits, not all of whom are knee-jerk Obama defenders are calling for Americans to pipe down about whether the policies of the past five years are partly responsible for the mess in Eastern Europe as well as the fiasco in Syria, not to mention the ongoing administration attempt to forge a new détente with Iran. Instead, we are being told to be quiet and to let America speak with one voice, lest Putin or any other foe be encouraged by criticism of Obama. Not for the first time, Arthur Vandenberg’s famous 1947 quote in which he chided Republican critics of President Harry Truman’s foreign policy that “we must stop partisan politics at the water’s edge” is being disinterred in order to give the 44th president some respite from the beating he has been taking from conservatives about his policies. Though, as Robert Lieber wrote last month in the Washington Post, Democrats have ignored that principle in the last decade, Joe Scarborough, MSNBC’s token conservative is sounding that bipartisan theme both on “Morning Joe” and in a Politico op-ed. Scarborough argues that, “There is nothing more frightening to our enemies than a strong, unified American voice.” That’s true. But in the absence of leadership from the president and the administration, such a stance is impossible. Though loyalty to country must always trump partisanship, the effort to suppress a debate about foreign policy at a time when it is desperately needed is antithetical to the cause of creating that “strong, unified American voice.”

Scarborough is right that “political broadsides” are out of place “when the tanks are rolling.” But what’s happening in the Ukraine is not a replay of the Cold War confrontation with the Soviets about Berlin or the Cuban Missile Crisis, let alone a crisis when U.S. troops are on the move. The point about what is happening in the Ukraine is that both America’s friends and its foes take it for granted that the U.S. is out of the business of trying to defend freedom, whether in places where our military can make a difference or those, like in Ukraine, where we know it is not possible.

Given the hyper-partisan nature of our current political culture that is exacerbated by an equally divided media, it is hard to imagine the revival of the kind of bipartisanship that Vandenberg embodied under any circumstances. But in the absence of either strong leadership or an articulation of core American principles by the president it is impossible.

Were President Obama showing the kind of courage in standing up to Putin that other presidents of both political parties demonstrated in past disputes with the Russians, criticism of his foreign policy could and would be put off until later. But asking critics to be silent when no such effort to unify the country or to stand up for the interests of U.S. friends and allies is being put forward by the administration is itself mere partisan hogwash.

A debate about foreign policy is needed precisely because what we are witnessing is the product of a feckless foreign policy that primarily views geostrategic foes such as Russia and Iran as candidates for appeasement rather than dangerous enemies to be faced down with strength. For many liberals, Obama’s weakness is an asset to be applauded as they support his vision of a world in which American exceptionalism is mere chauvinism. However, this unilateral moral disarmament has severe consequences. Putin doesn’t need to listen to conservative criticisms of the president’s foreign policy to understand that Obama’s naïve conception of global politics to be encouraged to violate international law. He already came to that conclusion before he invaded the Ukraine.

Politics must now extend beyond the water’s edge not because conservatives wish to cripple administration efforts to defend American interests — as was so often the case in the past when the left treated anti-American forces as victims to be sympathized with rather than enemies to be despised — but because they want Obama to start behaving like someone who believes in his nation’s cause.

Far from undermining the president’s ability to deal with Putin or Iran, a debate about his policies is the starting point for a recovery of American strength. What Putin expects, indeed, what he is counting on, is the kind of apathy about Obama’s foreign policy that has allowed the president to evade accountability for stances that undermined allies and appeased foes for years. After years of being told, both by the left and some on the right that America can afford to retreat from the world stage, a vigorous discussion of foreign policy and the mistakes made by this administration isn’t a political luxury; it’s a necessity.

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We Need Choices, Not Faux Bipartisanship

In the last few days, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie became every Democrat’s favorite Republican. Christie praised President Obama’s help for the Garden State during the hurricane and then rightly expressed disinterest in whether Mitt Romney would helicopter in for an unnecessary photo op. The photo of the president and the governor shaking hands has become the new symbol of bipartisanship as the two worked together to support the rescue and recovery operations. But anyone who thinks this is a model to heal the deep divide between liberals and conservatives on many basic issues is dead wrong.

Politicians should work together when it comes to dealing with natural disasters. After all, there is no — or at least shouldn’t be — a Democrat or Republican approach to helping those rendered homeless or to ensuring public safety in an emergency. Were they to fail to do so under these circumstances, it would be cause for severe criticism. In this case, both Obama and Christie were merely doing their duty, not performing some amazing or unprecedented task.

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In the last few days, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie became every Democrat’s favorite Republican. Christie praised President Obama’s help for the Garden State during the hurricane and then rightly expressed disinterest in whether Mitt Romney would helicopter in for an unnecessary photo op. The photo of the president and the governor shaking hands has become the new symbol of bipartisanship as the two worked together to support the rescue and recovery operations. But anyone who thinks this is a model to heal the deep divide between liberals and conservatives on many basic issues is dead wrong.

Politicians should work together when it comes to dealing with natural disasters. After all, there is no — or at least shouldn’t be — a Democrat or Republican approach to helping those rendered homeless or to ensuring public safety in an emergency. Were they to fail to do so under these circumstances, it would be cause for severe criticism. In this case, both Obama and Christie were merely doing their duty, not performing some amazing or unprecedented task.

But this much-welcomed new era of good feelings has nothing to do with the real issues that cause gridlock in Washington. On issues like ObamaCare, spending, taxes and the debt the differences between the parties are not a function of oversized political egos or clashing personalities but of basic principles. What those who urge bipartisanship often really want is for one side to abandon their principles and to adopt those of their opponents. That was the defining characteristic of “moderate Republicans” for much of the second half of the 20th century as they acquiesced to much of the liberal project and did nothing to reform it. While it is understandable that liberals would miss this thankfully almost extinct breed of bipartisans, their nostalgia has nothing to do with good government and everything to do with their desire to go back to winning arguments against opponents who wouldn’t stand up to them.

For too much of our political history, bipartisanship was just a nice way of saying that a significant portion of one of our two major parties agreed with their opponents on some of the big issues facing the republic. Prior to the Civil War, there was a lot of bipartisanship as Southern Whigs agreed with both Northern and Southern Democrats that slavery should not be disturbed. It was those annoying Northern Whigs who morphed into the nascent Republican Party that upset that consensus and were blamed for starting all the commotion that led to war. A similar kind of bipartisanship preserved the Jim Crow south in the following century. Though one shouldn’t compare slavery to modern liberalism, what those moderate Republicans often did was to offer no alternative to the left, a state of affairs that suited Democrats just fine.

If many in today’s contemporary Republican Party are not willing to do the “go along to get along” routine in the Capitol it is not because they are any more obnoxious than the Democrats. It is because they see the country heading over a fiscal cliff of spending and taxing that is sinking our economy now and crippling our future.

Some of these conservatives have sometimes overplayed their hand, as they did in 2011 during the debt-ceiling crisis. But they were far from alone in making mistakes during that summer, as President Obama was as guilty of avoiding reasonable compromises. Indeed, while the Tea Partiers were sometimes stuck in an ideological corner into which they had painted themselves, the president’s purpose seemed to be to goad them into open conflict so as to enhance his own political prospects.

The current House Republican majority was elected in 2010 to oppose the agenda of the Democrats who controlled the White House and both Houses of Congress for the previous two years, not to play along with it. While Bill Clinton listened to the people and sought to compromise with the GOP Congress that was elected in 1994, Obama dug in his heels and asked for another stimulus boondoggle and refused to alter ObamaCare. Thus we were left with a standoff that could only be resolved by another election.

On Tuesday, the people will decide whether they want more government or less, Democrats or Republicans. Bipartisanship on issues where there is no real disagreement needs no encouragement. But what we need is a resolution of those issues where we do disagree via the democratic process. If the voters can’t fully make up their minds and give us another round of divided government, those in charge will, out of necessity, have to deal with each other. But that is the fallback position, not the ideal. What we need is not a muddled and unprincipled political class dealing with each other but advocates of differing policies standing up and offering the voters clear choices. This is exactly the philosophy that the tough-talking Christie has advocated the GOP to adopt. For that we need elections, not hurricanes.

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