The Iran Deal and the Cost of Political Polarization

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In just a week or two, Congress will consider (actually, “consider” may be too generous a term in this instance), the negotiated agreement between Iran and the “P5+1” (the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council—the United States, Great Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany), curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The United States and its negotiating allies claim the agreement will prevent Iran from developing an atomic bomb. Opponents say that’s not so.

But—and this may upset people on both sides—the arguments for and against the agreement are not what interest me most. In fact, I am most troubled by what the debate has revealed about the disintegration of our political institutions and traditions, and of the increasing inability of those institutions to function on behalf of the American people and their interests.

Opposition to the Iran nuclear deal has been fomenting for years. Aroused and whipped by Israel’s hardline prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and his troops in AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee), congressional Republicans long ago decided to make this a “make or break” showdown with President Barack Obama. Forty-seven GOP senators, led by a young, freshman right-winger from Arkansas, Tom Cotton, even went so far as to write the leaders of Iran disavowing the deal before it was finalized. Few longtime students of the presidency or Congress can remember an affront of similar magnitude or possible consequence—short or long-term. The one that comes closest (even though we didn’t learn about it until decades later, and then only after all the key players were dead), was candidate Richard Nixon’s interference with the Paris Peace Talks (aimed at ending the war in Vietnam) in 1968.

What strikes me, in particular, is that the Republicans’ behavior vis-à-vis the negotiations with Iran stands in sharp contrast to the debate and the votes on the two Panama Canal treaties in 1978.

The Panama Canal issue in the 1970s was every bit as contentious as the situation with Iran is today. Negotiations of the treaties—one guaranteeing the neutral operation of the canal and the second ceding control of the canal to Panama (effective at midnight Dec. 31, 1999)—began in the Nixon administration, continued under President Ford, and were finalized by President Carter in August of 1977.

The uproar from the far right to Carter’s decision was immediate and intense; after all, former California Gov. Ronald Reagan had used the issue to bludgeon Gerald Ford in their fight for the Republican nomination in 1976, and he damn near succeeded (Reagan won the North Carolina primary largely because of the Panama Canal issue, as his chief in-state backer, the late Sen. Jesse Helms, was leader of the opposition).

Once Carter decided that he was going to agree to the treaties’ terms, Vice President Walter Mondale, congressional relations chief (and my boss at the time) Frank Moore, and the president himself divided up a call list of all 100 senators to let them know where things were headed, and to make a simple and singular request: That they not make any public statement, one way or another, until each senator had been briefed by officials from the administration—White House, State Department, Defense and the intelligence community—on the details and ramifications of either acceptance or rejection. Ninety-nine of the 100 agreed to and abided by the request; the only one who refused to do so was North Carolina’s Helms.

The ensuing debate was as vigorous and heated as one might imagine, and it went on for many months. Carter’s chief aide, Hamilton Jordan, orchestrated the administration’s campaign on behalf of ratification. Leading citizens from states whose senators were on the fence or shaky were invited to the White House for briefings and were subsequently dispatched to Capitol Hill to lobby for ratification. Newspaper editors, columnists and commentators were briefed by the president himself. My colleagues on the White House Congressional Liaison staff worked non-stop advocating and counting. Former Presidents Nixon and Ford made calls to key Republican senators; even conservative icon and Hollywood star John Wayne weighed in with his support.

On March 16, 1978, the first of two treaties (guaranteeing neutrality), was ratified by the Senate with only one vote to spare, 68 to 22; the second treaty (the one conveying the canal to Panama) was approved on April 18, 1978, by the exact same number. The vote breakdown is telling: 52 D/16 R “Aye” to 10 D/22 R “No.” Among the “yes” votes was that of Senate Minority Leader Howard Baker (R-Tenn.); Baker not only voted right, but he brought several of his Republican colleagues along with him.

It is important to note, as well, that the administration’s strategy was to reach at least 68 votes, rather than the minimum 67 required, so that no single senator could be accused of being the one who “gave away the Panama Canal.” Even so, many Democrats lost in the 1978 midterm elections and also in 1980, at least in part because of the courageous stand they took on the treaties. It will be interesting to see how political courage plays out on the Iran nuclear agreement; so far at least two Democratic senators, Charles Schumer of New York and Robert Menendez of New Jersey, have failed the test.

Were the votes on the Panama Canal treaties examples of “good old days” in American politics? Perhaps not. But they sure beat the hell out of what we are being subjected to today, and the price our representative democracy is paying as a result.

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