This was a great week for the White House.
A month ago Democrats were working to stop a GOP-penned resolution of disapproval against President Obama’s nuclear agreement with Iran. No, the resolution wouldn’t preclude the president’s authority to enter the deal, nor would it keep him from enforcing the agreement and its terms. But it would restrict his ability to lift sanctions on Iran, and potentially threaten the deal itself, as allies questioned U.S. commitment to the agreement.
To succeed, Democrats would need to sustain a presidential veto. And by the end of last week, they had reached their goal: President Obama had 34 “no” votes against the Republican resolution, protecting a White House veto. Still, Republicans would pass the law—with a few Democratic votes—and Obama would take the political blow, even as he won the substance.
On Thursday, however, that changed. When the resolution came for a vote, 42 senators voted to filibuster and keep it from the Senate floor. Democrats didn’t just save the deal; they blocked the GOP altogether. It was a huge win, and the administration wasn’t shy about its success. “This vote is a victory for diplomacy, for American national security, and for the safety and security of the world,” said Obama. “I am heartened that so many senators judged this deal on the merits, and am gratified by the strong support of lawmakers and citizens alike.”
But for as much as the White House can justly gloat over its strategy for securing Senate support, we shouldn’t ignore the extent to which it had a huge ally in persuading Democrats to stand with the deal. Namely, the Republican Party.
When the administration announced the deal in mid-July, it was an open question whether Democrats would sign on. First, there was public opinion. No, Americans might not want another war, but that’s not the same as supporting an agreement with Iran, especially one that lifts sanctions. What’s more, Americans had concerns about Israel—would this open an important ally to danger from an economically emboldened Iran? Sensitive to both concerns, many elected Democrats were wary of the deal, and some—like New York Sen. Chuck Schumer—eventually came out against it.
Republicans could have capitalized on the division, running against the deal while offering an alternative and showing—in word and deed—that this was about the policy, not the president. Schumer is a Democrat, but his final statement on the deal is instructive as a model for how to thread this needle. “Advocates on both sides have strong cases for their point of view that cannot simply be dismissed. … I have decided I must oppose the agreement and will vote yes on a motion of disapproval,” he said. “While we have come to different conclusions, I give tremendous credit to President Obama for his work on this issue.”
No, it’s not red meat. But this kind of considered opposition could have peeled away enough Democrats from the administration to win the legislative battle and jeopardize the deal. Instead, Republicans jumped to hyperbole.
When the deal was still just a negotiation, Republican senators led by Tom Cotton of Arkansas sent an “open letter” to Iran’s leaders urging them to dismiss talks. Shortly afterward, Republican leaders joined with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to slam the negotiation as a deadly threat to Israel. In the following months, Republicans would say the deal was “akin to declaring war on Israel”; that Obama was “march[ing]” Israelis to the “door of the oven”; and that the president was siding with “the oppressors.” The apex of this criticism came Tuesday, when former Vice President Cheney slammed the agreement in the fiercest words possible. “I know of no nation in history that has agreed to guarantee that the means of its own destruction will be in the hands of another nation, particularly one that is hostile,” he said.
None of this scared Democrats into voting against the deal. Instead, it was evidence that this fight was irreducibly partisan, with no chance of a compromise or détente. Cautious Democrats—like Sens. Ron Wyden of Oregon or Cory Booker of New Jersey—had two options: They could sign on with Cheney and the GOP, or they could bolster the president. They chose the latter, and handed Obama a victory that wasn’t guaranteed.
All of this should sound familiar. Change a few details, and you have the dynamic of early 2010, when a desperate Democratic Party wanted bipartisan support for a health care bill, and would take any compromise to pass a law. In that moment Republicans were primed to win the substance; they could deny the Democratic goal of universal health insurance and show their concern for the least fortunate with a piecemeal and limited health reform law. Instead, they wouldn’t budge, which forced Democrats into a choice: They could save the Affordable Care Act and pass it as written, or they could end the fight with nothing. They chose the former, and gave Obama the law that may define his legacy. Likewise, if House Republicans could just compromise and accept the presidential “grand bargain,” the party would have won cuts to major retirement programs, entrenching a new, conservative status quo. Now, four years later, it stands against an emerging liberal consensus for expanding Social Security and the welfare state.
Again and again, the GOP’s great obstacle—and Democrats’ great ally—is itself. Its intransigence might win elections—Obamacare helped the GOP win the 2010 midterms, and Republicans hope that Iran will do the same for 2016—but it comes at a cost: policy that’s more liberal than the alternative. And while there’s still time to turn the tide, it’s running out. If Democrats win another four years in the White House, they can turn Obama’s changes into a new and durable status quo.