Sunday, November 21, 2010

When Mr. Nice Guy won't yield...

As previously noted, and as is now manifest to all, Obama has focused on ratification of the New START treaty as his one must-do in the lame duck session of Congress.

Like most Democrats, I have been frustrated by the President's continued patter about compromise and bipartisanship on the tax front in the wake of the election.  Notwithstanding that large majorities of Americans say that they want compromise between the president and Republicans, and that equally large majorities trust the president more than the Republicans in Congress to bargain in good faith, it seems to most of us that with Republican knives not only drawn but brandished, Obama needs to stake out his own ground -- on taxes, on DADT, on unemployment benefits. No real compromise is possible when one side does all the conceding.

It may be, though, that the show of humility on all those fronts is designed to set up a kind of reverse Nixon-to-China moment for Obama on New START.  "Nixon to China" means only a tough guy has the standing to compromise. Obama's stand on New START signals that when Mr. Reasonable won't yield, the other side must be playing politics. Rhetorically, on New START, it's easy for Obama to wrap himself in Reagan, Kissinger, Baker, Powell, Lugar, etc. And that's precisely what he's done in his latest weekly address.

Leaving aside the incontrovertible case he draws succinctly for the treaty's centrality to U.S. efforts to secure nukes, resume inspections in Russia, and maintain Russian cooperation re Iran and Afghanistan, Obama, without attacking anyone's motives directly, positions opposition to New START as partisan posturing.  He casts the treaty as a continuation of a long bipartisan effort:
Indeed, since the Reagan years, every President has pursued a negotiated, verified, arms reduction treaty. And every time that these treaties have been reviewed by the Senate, they have passed with over 85 votes. Bipartisan support for New START could not be stronger. It has been endorsed by Republicans from the Reagan Administration and both Bush Administrations – including Colin Powell, George Shultz, Jim Baker, and Henry Kissinger. And it was approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee by a strong bipartisan vote of 14-4.
Highlights his own bipartisan bona fides on the issue:
Over the last several months, several questions have been asked about New START, and we have answered every single one. Some have asked whether it will limit our missile defense – it will not. Some, including Senator Jon Kyl, have asked that we modernize our nuclear infrastructure for the 21st century – we are doing so, and plan to invest at least $85 billion in that effort over the next ten years – a significant increase from the Bush Administration.
And in the end, holds a bipartisan Lugar to the Republican senators' heads:
The choice is clear: a failure to ratify New START would be a dangerous gamble with America’s national security, setting back our understanding of Russia’s nuclear weapons, as well as our leadership in the world. That is not what the American people sent us to Washington to do.

There is enough gridlock, enough bickering. If there is one issue that should unite us – as Republicans and Democrats – it should be our national security.

Some things are bigger than politics. As Republican Dick Lugar said the other day, “Every Senator has an obligation in the national security interest to take a stand, to do his or her duty.”
Senator Lugar is right. And if the Senate passes this treaty, it will not be an achievement for Democrats or Republicans – it will be a win for America.
Perhaps Obama picks his battles too carefully. I see no political risk to holding the line on the Bush tax cuts -- if somehow they all expired, Republicans would rush to retroactively roll back whatever they could get past his veto at the outset of the 112th Congress. But the last time he stood his ground and staged a legislative showdown -- via his February healthcare summit -- he carried the day. Let's see if it happens again.

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