After Iraq, Democrats didn’t want to vote for war.
It’s now virtually certain that the Iran nuclear deal will survive congressional challenge. If opponents pass a bill rejecting the agreement, supporters have the votes to sustain U.S. President Barack Obama’s veto in the House of Representatives. In the Senate, a bill condemning the deal may not even garner enough votes to pass in the first place.
The interesting question is why.
The first, and most obvious, answer is that when a president really wants something in foreign policy, he’s hard to stop. After World War II, when America established a de facto global empire, the balance of power between the president and Congress tipped. The executive branch now contains a vast, semi-secret national security bureaucracy that makes split-second decisions — for instance, whether to launch a drone strike halfway across the world — without ever asking Congress. Members of Congress have become accustomed to deferring to presidents overseas in a way they don’t at home. Even when the Iraq War grew politically toxic, Congress never cut off its funding. Congress still refuses to vote on Obama’s war against ISIS; they’d rather leave it to him.
The Iran deal is unusual in that members of one party — the GOP — are refusing to show that deference. In fact, opposing the president on Iran has become a way for Republicans to rally their political base. But that merely brings us to reason number two that the deal is almost certain to pass: The more partisan the opposition to it becomes, the more Democrats rally behind Obama in response.
This is a huge problem for AIPAC. For years, the organization has worked to ensure that both Democrats and Republicans provide the Israeli government unquestioning support. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, by embracing Mitt Romney in 2012, colluding with Republicans to organize a speech to Congress behind Obama’s back this spring and making Ron Dermer, a former GOP operative, his top representative in Washington, has made AIPAC’s work harder.
AIPAC itself has also changed. In the 1980s, when it was led by Tom Dine, a former staffer to Ted Kennedy, Democrats comprised a larger share of its membership. But over the decades, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush have made hawkish Jews more comfortable in the GOP. Others have left the Democratic Party because of Barack Obama. Orthodox Jews, who vote overwhelmingly Republican, also play a larger role in AIPAC than they did a few decades ago.
As a result, while AIPAC remains immensely powerful, the distribution of its power has changed. Last year, the organization’s problems attracting liberal Democrats even led it to appoint a director for progressive engagement.
AIPAC’s power doesn’t come from its staff in Washington. It comes from its ability to mobilize influential people in a state or district, people who know their member of Congress well. But if fewer of the AIPAC activists in a given state or city are Democrats, their Iran views carry less weight with Democratic members of Congress. In the words of one Jewish official who has spent time discussing the Iran deal on Capitol Hill, “Members have commented on how AIPAC’s membership has changed. They say that when they walk into an AIPAC meeting, it feels to them like they’re walking into a conservative, Republican space.” Why should Democrats listen to Republican AIPAC activists who will oppose them no matter what?
But there’s a third reason Obama is going to win on Iran. By framing a vote against the deal as a vote for war, he’s effectively harnessed the legacy of the Iraq war. Before Iraq, ambitious Democrats considered hawkishness the politically safer bet. That had been the lesson of the 1991 Gulf War. Only ten senate Democrats had voted to authorize it. And after the war proved a triumph, two of them, Al Gore and Joe Lieberman, were rewarded with spots atop their party’s presidential ticket in 2000.
The politics of the Iraq War proved exactly the opposite. It was his opposition to the war that led Howard Dean to come from nowhere to almost win the Democratic nomination in 2004. Opposing the war helped Obama beat Hillary Clinton in 2008. Opposing the Iraq War also helped make MoveOn.org a force inside the Democratic Party, and it is MoveOn, more than any other single group, that Democrats fear crossing if they vote against the Iran deal today. Most senators fantasize about being on a presidential ticket one day. And as the Jewish official notes, Democratic senators are “keenly aware that there’s no candidate for president today running on their record of the support of the Iraq War.”
Barack Obama ran for president, in part, to change the politics of national security; to give Democrats the confidence to do what they believed was right. As he said in Iowa in late 2007, “I don’t want to see more American lives put at risk because no one had the judgment or the courage to stand up against a misguided war before we sent our troops into fight.”
Now, as Obama’s presidency enters its twilight, it is clear that he has succeeded. Republicans may be as hawkish as ever. But Democrats no longer feel the need to keep pace. They no longer worry as much that by supporting diplomacy, they look weak or soft.
On national security, Obama has changed the terms of debate. And there is nothing Benjamin Netanyahu or AIPAC can do about it.
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