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Taking the Low Road: The White House’s Scorched Earth Sell of the Iran Deal

The administration’s rhetorical offensive—which owes more to Karl Rove than the promised politics of hope—is needlessly dividing its supporters

Yair Rosenberg
August 12, 2015
Alex Wong/Getty Images
U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington, D.C., August 6, 2015. Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images
U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington, D.C., August 6, 2015. Alex Wong/Getty Images

President Obama will almost assuredly be able to implement his recently-concluded nuclear deal with Iran. Despite significant congressional opposition, there simply don’t appear to be enough votes to capsize the accord. As Greg Sargent recently noted in The Washington Post, even if both houses manage to pass a motion of disapproval, there is little chance that critics will be able to muster the two-thirds majority necessary to override Obama’s inevitable veto. For this reason, even staunch opponents of the deal like Republican Senator Marco Rubio admit that Congress likely won’t be able to kill it.

In other words, the White House has this in the bag.

But you wouldn’t know it from their rhetoric. Rather than coast to victory on the congressional math while applying some well-placed political pressure behind the scenes, the Obama administration and its allies have waged a scorched-earth campaign against anyone who dares to question the wisdom of the deal.

Speaking at American University last week, Obama likened opponents of the deal to Iran’s own extremists. “It’s those hardliners chanting ‘death to America’ who have been most opposed to the deal,” he said. “They’re making common cause with the Republican caucus.” He effectively branded deal-doubters as warmongers, insisting that “the choice we face is ultimately between diplomacy or some form of war.” (That dichotomy had been rejected only hours earlier in Congress—by Obama’s chief nuclear negotiator Wendy Sherman.)

Obama’s remarks were not outliers. After attending a private meeting with the president, along with nine other reporters, Vox journalist Max Fisher described Obama’s outlook towards his critics:

People only oppose [the Iran deal], he seemed to believe, for one of three reasons: 1) they have a cynical ulterior motive, 2) they have been misled by people with a cynical ulterior motive, or 3) they do not wish to side against the Israeli leadership.

In other words, to Obama, those who question the Iran deal—one of the most complex and fraught geopolitical bargains of our time—are either knaves, fools, or foreign stooges. It’s a black-and-white, you’re-either-with-us-or-against-us campaign that would make Karl Rove proud.

Such Manichean messaging would be understandable if it were necessary for the administration to secure a win on its signature foreign policy initiative. But if anything, the polarizing campaign has accomplished quite the opposite, taking what should have been a relatively painless victory and transforming it into a Democratic civil war. Rather than nail down the deal, the administration’s overreach has provoked internal unrest over it.

This dynamic was readily apparent in the White House’s response to Senator Chuck Schumer, who announced his opposition to the deal last Thursday. Rather than setting a confident tone and lightly dismissing Schumer’s dissent as predictable and ultimately inconsequential—the New York legislator is not even whipping other lawmakers to join him—the administration and its allies turned on the longtime Democratic stalwart with a vengeance, questioning his integrity and threatening his future within the party.

Dan Pfeiffer, Obama’s recently departed senior adviser, accused Schumer of “want[ing] war with Iran,” and said his stance “will make it hard for him to lead Dems in ’16.” (Schumer is currently the presumed next Democratic Senate Minority Leader, tapped to succeed the retiring Harry Reid.) Even more pointedly, Obama campaign guru David Axelrod, echoing his boss’s black-and-white broadsides, tweeted that Schumer was not following his conscience, but playing politics, since no reasonable person could oppose the deal. “Facts are facts, and politics is politics,” Axelrod wrote. “Schumer made a decision based on politics, not fact.” These and other anti-Schumer attacks were shared and seconded by various current and former administration officials.

The result of this pile-on of pique? Instead of Schumer’s no-vote passing quietly into the night, it has turned him into a martyr, and become a flashpoint within the Democratic party.

On one hand, the administration’s assault served as a signal for pro-deal groups to go after Schumer, with some venturing into deeply disturbing territory. Reza Marashi of the White House-allied National Iranian American Council soon suggested Schumer was serving foreign masters, tweeting: “Shame on Chuck Schumer for putting Israel’s interests ahead of America’s interests.” This dual loyalty charge was subsequently illustrated by a DailyKos cartoonist, who labeled Schumer a “traitor” and placed an Israeli flag behind him for good measure.

Other liberal partisans quickly took up this prejudicial line of attack against Schumer and other deal critics.

At the same time, alarmed by the rhetoric of the administration and its allies, other Obama supporters came to Schumer’s defense and sharply questioned the White House’s approach. Former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, who endorsed Obama in 2012 and is one of the Democratic party’s top donors, took to the pages of Bloomberg View to issue a rare rebuke of the president. “Instead of attempting to persuade Americans on the merits, supporters of the deal are resorting to intimidation and demonization, while also grossly overstating their case,” he wrote. “Emblematic of all this—and what has prompted me to write—was the treatment of Senator Chuck Schumer.”

The Atlantic‘s Jeffrey Goldberg, an Obama sympathizer who has written in favor of the deal, noted that “Jewish supporters of the Obama administration are beginning to feel scapegoated.” He asked:

Why does it seem to a growing number of people (I count Chuck Schumer in this group) that an administration professing—honestly, from what I can tell—to understand Jewish anxieties about the consequences of anti-Semitism in the Middle East does not appear to understand that the way some of its advocates outside government are framing the Iran-deal fight—as one between Jewish special interests, on the one hand, and the entire rest of the world, on the other—may empower actual anti-Semites not only in the Middle East, but at home as well?

Even liberal senators who have come out in favor of the deal began rallying around Schumer in defiance of the White House.

The discourse didn’t have to play out this way. After all, there is no shortage of scholars, diplomats and politicians who support the Iran deal and that the administration could have cited to advance its case without impugning the integrity of those who differ. Recognizing that the congressional calculus was stacked in their favor, the White House could have taken the high road, and chosen to conduct a more dignified debate on the deal, eschewing personal attacks without ceding an inch on substance. Consider the example of progressive presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders, who earlier this week affirmed his support for the Iran deal while disputing the president’s contention that its critics were making common cause with Tehran’s hardliners.

Or perhaps the White House could have heeded the wise words of a Nobel Peace Prize-winning statesman who told a group of college students,

We can’t expect to solve our problems if all we do is tear each other down. You can disagree with a certain policy without demonizing the person who espouses it. You can question somebody’s views and their judgment without questioning their motives or their patriotism. Throwing around phrases like “socialists” and “Soviet-style takeover” and “fascist” and “right-wing nut” … may grab headlines, but it also has the effect of comparing our government, our political opponents, to authoritarian, even murderous regimes.

… The problem is that this kind of vilification and over-the-top rhetoric closes the door to the possibility of compromise. It undermines democratic deliberation. It prevents learning–since, after all, why should we listen to a “fascist,” or a “socialist,” or a “right-wing nut,” or a left-wing nut”? It makes it nearly impossible for people who have legitimate but bridgeable differences to sit down at the same table and hash things out. It robs us of a rational and serious debate, the one we need to have about the very real and very big challenges facing this nation.

That statesman was President Barack Obama at the University of Michigan in 2010, reiterating the message he ran on in 2008. Of course, Obama’s political opponents have rarely granted him the courtesy of this dignified discourse. But if the Iran deal debate has revealed one thing, it’s that when the chips are down, the president isn’t willing to stand up for it either.

Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet. Subscribe to his newsletter, listen to his music, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.