The ratification of the New START treaty is a huge victory for President Obama and huge blow to Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) and the Republican Senate leadership. START also confirms what progressives have been saying on other issues — namely, that when the White House stands and fights and refuses to give ground it can win.
The treaty fight turned into a game of chicken in the last six weeks in which Kyl was determined to delay, and Democrats were determined to hold a vote. The question was always who would swerve. Kyl seemed supremely confident that the White House would lose its nerve, but it didn’t and pressed on. What makes this an even more humiliating defeat for Kyl is that he didn’t swerve — he, with Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and at the end Lindsey Graham (R-SC), pressed for delay up until the very end — instead he drove head on. But in the collision, we discovered he was driving a smart car and START supporters were driving a tank. He just got run over and embarrassingly for him, before the impact, many of his colleagues jumped out of the car.
That turned this into a stinging defeat for Senators Jon Kyl and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (as well as the Heritage foundation). They were thoroughly repudiated by more than a quarter of the Republican caucus — a shocking display of disunity after two years of almost uniform obstruction. It was indeed an epic collapse and in the end made the Senate leadership incredibly irrelevant.
Kyl was driven by radicalism not just politics. Fred Kaplan and Adam Serwer have penned excellent analyses where they argue that choosing to fight over a modest treaty was a huge mistake for Senate Republicans, since by doing so made it a much bigger victory than it would have been if they just all supported the treaty. That is no doubt correct from a political perspective. But it misses the fact that Senator Kyl and many Senate Republicans actually have extremely radical views on nuclear weapons policy.
While Kyl called the START treaty “benign” in the summer, he has doggedly pursued nuclear weapons modernization. And while he got increased funding commitments the issue that he fought hard for over the last decade was the building of an entirely new nuclear warhead, which was defeated by past Democratic congresses. If START had been delayed into the new year, it is clear that Kyl’s cost for supporting the treaty would have gone up significantly and likely would have been the Reliable Replacement Warhead that Kyl so fervently craved. So in the end it was a bad political move by Kyl to oppose the treaty, but he was driven by a far right nuclear radicalism, not just a desire to defeat the President.
The White House and John Kerry threw down and caused political pain for Republicans. Over the past year, the White House and Senator John Kerry desperately tried to enlist the support of Senator Kyl. They made a massive preemptive concession by budgeting $80 billion to the nuclear weapons complex and they bent over backwards to get him on board — even flying people out to Arizona to meet with him. Kerry also did everything he could to head of process complaints. He held a huge number of hearings — with more Republican witnesses than Democrats. He delayed the committee vote until after the August recess in response to Republican demands. I worried at the time that this would just make it easier for Kyl to delay further.
But after Senator Kyl blindsided the White House and Kerry in November and said he would oppose a vote this year, they went on the offensive. Many expected the administration to relent and allow the treaty to be delayed until next year where its likelihood of passage would narrow significantly. Indeed, many reporters were already writing START’s obituary following Kyl’s statement. But the White House came out swinging and drew the line in the sand, saying no matter what a vote was going to happen this year. Case in point was Press Secretary Robert Gibbs’ statement last week eviscerating Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) for demanding to read the entire treaty. DeMint quickly caved.
In other words, the Administration refused to back down and used the bully pulpit to make the case for the treaty. It hosted Colin Powell and demonstrated a show of force by bringing Henry Kissinger and others to the White House. This put Republicans on the defensive and led to a public backlash. More than 50 newspaper editorial boards came out to support the treaty eviscerating Kyl for putting politics ahead of national security. Senate Democrats took to the airwaves to attack Kyl and Republicans were seen as being irresponsible on national security. This heat on Republicans was critical to the collapse of opposition to the treaty.
Finally, this victory shows progressives can fight and win on national security issues and on nuclear policy. Republicans made all the standard arguments on missile defense, not trusting Russia, and on disarmament, but still lost. Granted progressives had the high ground when fighting on START, but progressives did not run when facing Republican attacks.
It is hard for many observers and activists to realize this, but there is no longer a post-Vietnam hang over for Democrats on foreign policy. Instead, it is becoming increasingly clear that Republicans have a post-Iraq credibility problem. The START victory shows that Democrats have nothing to lose politically, and in fact have much to gain, when debating and fighting with Republicans on foreign policy.