The Senate GOP in Crisis

Mitch McConnell

“It is a useful thing when a political party reveals itself as utterly unsuited for national leadership.”

Fred Kaplan

In a way, everyone else is taking it well. That is to say, even the Iranians are trying very hard to enjoy themselves in the moment, and why not? It is not every day the United States Senate goes out of its way to afford a foreign nation the opportunity to school it on American constitutional issues. Or, as Akbar Shahid Ahmed explains, for Huffington Post:

After sparking a furor in Washington Monday with a letter signed by fellow Republican senators warning Iran against nuclear diplomacy with the Obama administration, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) went to the extra trouble of having his message translated into Farsi for Iranian leaders. Among his targets: foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

Cotton needn’t have bothered with the translation. Zarif is more than capable of reading the Republicans’ letter in English. He attended prep school in San Francisco, San Francisco State University, Columbia University, and the University of Denver’s School of International Studies (where, Zarif told The New Yorker’s Robin Wright, a professor who had taught GOP foreign policy icon Condoleezza Rice once quipped to the young Iranian, “In Denver, we produce liberals like Javad Zarif, not conservatives like Condi Rice.”)

Zarif, leading his nation’s negotiations with the U.S., the U.K., France, Germany, Russia and China, put that education to use in his response Monday to the Republican message, which suggested that Iran’s leaders “may not fully understand our constitutional system.”

Zarif answered that it was Cotton and the 46 other Republican senators who signed his letter who suffered from a lack of “understanding.”

“The authors may not fully understand that in international law, governments represent the entirety of their respective states, are responsible for the conduct of foreign affairs, are required to fulfil the obligations they undertake with other states and may not invoke their internal law as justification for failure to perform their international obligations,” Zarif said, according to Iran’s government-controlled Tasnim News Agency.

He suggested that the Republican warning that a successor to President Barack Obama could undo any agreement with Iran was baseless. Zarif said the “change of administration does not in any way relieve the next administration from international obligations undertaken by its predecessor.”

Yeah. See, it’s one thing to say there is a problem in that Mr. Zarif has a point. But the problem isn’t that an Iranian foreign minister has a point, rather that he needs to make it at all.

It is, in fact, worth taking a moment to appreciate that whiff of a prick factor about Sen. Cotton’s condescenscion. In earlier coverage of the infamous letter, Ahmed noted:

But there are a couple of problems with this constitutional lesson. The first hitch is that contrary to the letter’s premise, Iran’s leadership actually has access to a great deal of understanding about how the U.S. works: as The Economist noted last year and users reminded the Twitterverse last night, Iran’s presidential cabinet presently features more members with doctorates from U.S. universities than Obama’s cabinet does. And the second issue, which is perhaps more alarming for a GOP only just becoming reacquainted with Senate control, is that a legal luminary from the senators’ own party now says they got the Constitution wrong.

Jack Goldsmith, a Harvard University law professor and former top legal official in the George W. Bush administration, offered the lawmakers their own lesson early Monday morning.

Writing for the blog Lawfare, Goldsmith noted that the senators mistakenly say in their message that the Senate “must ratify” any treaty. In fact, he points out, the Senate’s role is to give the president its consent for a treaty — and to recognize that ratifying it is the president’s choice.

(Boldface accent added)

And the only problem with Goldsmith’s explanation is that despite being a former White House official, his own party tends to not listen to him.

Meanwhile, in a twist curious for its combination of absolute absurdity and foreboding inevitability, Republicans are now blaming the White House for their gaffe clusterfuck. Tim Mak of The Daily Beast tries to help us understand:

Republican aides were taken aback by the response to what what they thought was a lighthearted attempt to signal to Iran and the public that Congress should have a role in the ongoing nuclear discussions. Two GOP aides separately described their letter as a “cheeky” reminder of the congressional branch’s prerogatives.

“The administration has no sense of humor when it comes to how weakly they have been handling these negotiations,” said a top GOP Senate aide.

Added a Republican national security aide, “The Senate should have a role. It would make any agreement have some sort of consistency and perpetuity beyond the president. And it would also be buy-in for the American people. Right now it’s just an agreement between the President of the United States and whoever the final signatory to the agreement is.”

Yes. Yes, you … you read that correctly.

There are actually a few important things going on, there:

• As Messrs. Zaif and Goldsmith have noted, the Senate does have a role.

• The misrepresentation does not appear to be an error, but rather a talking point: “consistency and perpetuity beyond the president”? Or, “just an agreement”? It is one thing to make such assertions, but they are new and extraordinary. The point is to misrepresent the process in order to till the land and plant the seed. That is how new this talking point is, we are seeing it sewn, and if Republicans persist―and at this point, why wouldn’t they?―we will be able to watch it germinate and grow. And it will be a laborious endeavor for them, repeating this context over and over in hopes of harvesting what really is inedible produce.

• So, let us get this straight: It is the fault of the White House that, if we accept the explanation, they haven’t the sense of humor to be amused by the Senate Republicans’ attempt to prank the P5+1 negotiations? No, really, do I have that right? After House Republicans decided to meddle in the Israeli election in order to beat a war drum against Iran, Senate Republicans decided to prank the P5+1? With a condescending fake constitutional argument?

The first month of bicameral Republican majorities did not fare wellα, and things have only gone downhill since. The House speech might well end up costing Netanyahu re-election. It just has not been anything resembling a good run for congressional Republican leaders.

And though it is an expected point, perhaps Fred Kaplan actually has a point:

It is a useful thing when a political party reveals itself as utterly unsuited for national leadership. This may be the one redeeming feature of Monday’s letter to the Iranian government signed by 47 (or, to put it another way, all but seven) Senate Republicans.

That is to say, in this case it might actually be a real, genuine consideration. It seems hard to suggest Kaplan is leading off with a line like that for purely sensationalistic reasons―

The letter—which encourages Iran’s leaders to dismiss the ongoing nuclear talks with the United States and five other nations—is as brazen, gratuitous, and plainly stupid an act as any committed by the Senate in recent times, and that says a lot. It may also be illegal.

The banalities begin with the greeting: “An Open Letter to the Leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran.” By custom, a serious letter to foreign leaders would address them by name. Who is it that the senators are seeking to influence: the supreme leader, the Parliament, the Revolutionary Guards? Clearly none of the above, otherwise it wouldn’t be an open letter. Nor, if this were a serious attempt of some sort, would Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (who was among the missive’s signatories) leave the task of organizing it to the likes of Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, an otherwise unknown freshman. As usual, the Republicans’ goal is simple: to embarrass and undermine President Barack Obama.

―because the theme persists: It just goes downhill from there.

Still, Kaplan includes a point that really isn’t getting enough attention: While McConnell might not have left the task of organizing such a letter to a freshman whose shallow record is scribbled with sketchy, cynical politicking, just how did forty-six of his Senate colleagues―including the Majority Leader himself―think signing on could possibly be a good idea?

The basic optics are insane; the nuance even worse. “Reading this,” Kaplan opines of the letter, “one can only wonder if these Republicans ever consult their staffs.” We would not dispute the point, but, rather, further wonder if any of those staffers are capable of recognizing a bad idea when they see it. A graceless, dishonest freshman from Arkansas, sure, but there aren’t forty-six other graceless, dishonest freshmen among Senate Republicans. It is easier to note the seven Republicans―Rep. Tom Cotton (R-AR4), candidate for United States Senate, is willing to help Daa'ish in order to win.Alexander (TN), Coats (IN), Cochran (MS), Collins (ME), Corker (TN), Flake (AZ), and Murkowski (AK)―who were smart enough to steer clear of this insanity. The entire leadership, for instance, somehow decided it was a good idea to sign onto this letter.

Mundane issues of traditional Republican politics, such as separation of powers, support for the executive in foreign policy, and constant complaints about the unconstitutionality and illegality of Obama administration endeavors really do pale in comparison to the magnitude of impropriety and incompetence Senate majority leaders have shown in this unfortunate chapter shot through with morbid comedy.

It may be that McConnell did not set Cotton about this task, but why did the Majority Leader not put a stop to it?

What about this was a good idea?


α Perhaps a reminder, courtesy Daniel Newhauser and Lauren Fox of National Journal:

“I prefer that we avoid these very contentious social issues,” said moderate Rep. Charlie Dent, reprising comments he gave in the closed-door conference meeting. “Week one, we had a speaker election that did not go as well as a lot of us would have liked. Week two, we got into a big fight over deporting children, something that a lot of us didn’t want to have a discussion about. Week three, we are now talking about rape and incest and reportable rapes and incest for minors .... I just can’t wait for week four.”

Kaplan, Fred. “Amateur Hour”. Slate. 10 March 2015.

Ahmed, Akbar Shahid. “Iran Schools GOP Senators On International Law”. The Huffington Post. 9 March 2015.

—————. “GOP Senators Flub Fact About The Constitution As They Lecture Iran About The Constitution”. The Huffington Post. 9 March 2015.

Goldsmith, Jack. “The Error in the Senators’ Letter to the Leaders of Iran”. Lawfare. 9 March 2015.

Mak, Tim. “Republicans Admit: That Iran Letter Was a Dumb Idea”. The Daily Beast. 11 March 2015.

Lis, Jonathan. “Senior Likud sources: Netanyahu may not win election”. Haaretz. 11 March 2015.

Newhauser, Daniel and Lauren Fox. “GOP Leaders Pull Abortion Bill After Revolt by Women, Moderates”. National Journal. 21 January 2015.

Correction: Three hyperlinks have been corrected in order to direct readers to the appropriate website. File, please, under, “Well, damn. Sorry ’bout that.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s