The 2016 campaign season has taken a sledgehammer to the traditional left-right divisions on foreign policy, what with Sean Hannity waxing bromantic with Julian Assange, and a raft of hawkish Republican heavyweights lining up to support Hillary Clinton. Weirdness of a similar nature is unfolding in New Jersey’s fifth congressional district, where an ideologically heterodox Republican incumbent is running against an effusively pro-Israel and anti-Iran deal Democrat. To make things even odder, the Republican is now attempting to connect his opponent to the diplomacy that led to the Iran deal—despite his own one-time support for closer relations with Iran.
Neither the Republican, Congressman Scott Garrett, nor his challenger, a former Clinton speechwriter and Microsoft executive named Josh Gottheimer, fits cleanly to partisan type on foreign policy. Although Gottheimer’s a democrat, he was a vocal public critic of the nuclear agreement, and published an op-ed opposing the deal in the Times of Israel last August. While there’s been some evidence of increasing Democratic ambivalence on Israel over the past year, Gotthemier doesn’t share it, and stated his disagreement with the possible softening of pro-Israel language in the Democratic party platform earlier this year.
Garrett, meanwhile, has an interesting record of bucking the Republican foreign policy consensus. In a 2011 interview, he supported cutting $1.3 billion out of the U.S. foreign aid budget, which would eliminate just about all non-military assistance. And in 2006, he was one of 12 members Congress to sign a letter to then-president George W. Bush urging the opening of an official diplomatic dialogue with Iran, in spite of the bellicose and frequently bigoted public statements of then-Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. “Although we are familiar with the inflammatory rhetoric of President Ahmadinejad, there are certainly other significant governmental bodies in Iran that have demonstrated moderation and an eagerness for dialogue,” the letter reads. The other signatories include Republicans who didn’t fit into the mainstream party ideology of the time: Libertarian icon Ron Paul is a signatory, as is North Carolina’s Walter B. Jones, who has speculated about Dick Cheney joining Lyndon Johnson in hell and endorsed Paul for president in 2008. John Hostettler, who was one of only six Republicans to vote against the Iraq War and one of 11 members of the House to vote against a relief assistance package for New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, also signed.
The 2006 letter hinted at how the flailing U.S. military campaign in Iraq would transform the foreign policy conversation on the American right, empowering libertarian and paleo-conservative skeptics of mainline Republican foreign policy, which was (and still is) reliably opposed to the regime in Tehran. The rise of the Putin-friendly, isolationist-minded Donald Trump has pushed once-peripheral right-wing foreign policy dissenters to the center of Republican politics, a development that could make someone like Garrett even more willing to buck the Republican party line.
Garrett’s proven ambivalent on that front: He’s a Trump supporter of the “endorses the Republican nominee” variety. And the politics of the Iran deal have been wildly counter-intuitive at times. The deal is unpopular enough to be politically toxic, and the agreement was opposed by every Republican member of Congress. So Garrett is now running TV ads, including one which Tablet has seen, linking Gottheimer to the Iran deal and claiming that the Democrat “endorsed Obama’s failed foreign policies, policies that led to the deal that paid Iran billions, and won’t stop them from acquiring nuclear weapons.”
It’s difficult to extrapolate from a single, atypical congressional election. But the Garrett-Gottheimer race shows the unexpected ways in which the Iran deal is now seeping into congressional-level politics—and how partisan divisions on foreign policy are getting increasingly blurred. The Iran deal is controversial enough that a one-time Republican foreign policy maverick and former advocate of closer relations with Tehran isn’t using his past views to draw a contrast with an anti-deal democrat. In fact, he appears to be doing exactly the opposite. Meanwhile, the democrat isn’t arguing that the Iran deal is one of his president’s and his party’s greatest foreign policy triumphs. On that count, he’s running in the other direction as well.