The water’s edge

    ‘Tis the season to be merry, and with good reason: President Obama has signed the law that finally banishes institutional bigotry in the military, Congress has finalized a bill that will boost federal food-safety standards for the first time since 1938, Obama and Republican leaders cut a deal to extend jobless benefits for another 13 months…And, in a true holiday miracle, Senate Republicans in sufficient number have finally decided to park their partisan instincts and vote instead to ratify the historic nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia. The Senate was expected to back the pact today by a margin exceeding the required two-thirds of the chamber – thus ensuring that America and Russia will work in tandem over the next seven years to cut and cap their own strategic nuclear warhead arsenals, while partnering on efforts to curb potential nuclear threats from Iran and North Korea. (Update: The pact was indeed ratified this afternoon, 71-26. Thirteen Republicans broke with their naysaying leaders and voted to endorse.)Imagine that: A bipartisan agreement on national security. A reaffirmation of the old adage, famously voiced in the late 1940s by Republican Senator Arthur Vandenberg, about the need to set aside politics for the sake of the nation. His exact words: “To me, ‘bipartisan foreign policy’ means a mutual effort, under our indispensable, two-party system, to unite our official voice at the water’s edge so that America speaks with one voice to those who would divide and conquer us and the free world.”It didn’t seem possible this time, given the current partisan hostilities on Capitol Hill. Yet ratification of New START was engineered with significant Republican help. As Richie Ashburn used to say to his partner during Phillies games, “Hard to believe, Harry!”Nevertheless…there is, inevitably, a caveat.Republican cooperation should have been a no-brainer, since this accord was endorsed by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (who calls it “essential to our future security”), by the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, by five former Defense secretaries dating back nearly 40 years, by every Republican Secretary of State dating back nearly 40 years, by five former nuclear weapons commanders, by a senior George Bush national security adviser, by a junior George Bush national security adviser, by the current head of the U.S. strategic command, and by the current head of the Air Force’s global strike command.But no. For too long, the temptation to embarrass Barack Obama on the world stage was too great. Never mind the fact that New START basically sustains the framework of the original arms-reduction treaty with the Soviet Union – as negotiated and endorsed by none other than Ronald Reagan, and signed in ’91 by his successor, the senior Bush. This new pact had to be bad, by definition, because it was negotiated by Obama’s team. And since Mitch McConnell’s stated top priority is to destroy the Obama presidency, the GOP’s Senate leader was not going to cast a vote that would basically vet Obama’s credentials as commander-in-chief. Nor, of course, did he want his colleagues to do so.And so we heard a litany of faux laments about how Obama was trying to “ram through” this treaty at the eleventh hour (New START has been the topic of 21 Senate hearings and at least five classified briefings); that Obama was weakening America by hampering our ability to build a missile defense system (the Joint Chiefs chairman says “the treaty does not in any way constrain our ability to pursue robust missile defenses”); and that Obama basically allowed Russia to roll us. (GOP Senator Jon Kyl, captain of the GOP’s No squad, claims that Obama “wasn’t willing to stand up to the Russians,” and he likened Obama to “the guy that goes into the car dealership and says, ‘I’m not leaving here until I buy a car.'”)What’s important to remember, however, is that the right’s rhetorical paranoia did not begin with Obama. Conservatives have long been hostile to the idea of breaking bread with our nuclear competitors – as Ronald Reagan himself discovered back in 1987, when he inked a missile-elimination treaty with Mikhail Gorbachev. If you think the anti-Obama attacks are strong now, check out what conservatives were saying about Reagan 23 years ago. (Conservatives, who today revere Reagan, never seem to remember what they said about him in ’87.)The conservative National Review denounced the treaty as “Reagan’s suicide pact.” Activists called Reagan “a traitor to anti-communism.” Columnist George Will wrote that Reagan was furthering “the moral disarmament of the West.” The Washington Times newspaper compared Reagan to Nazi appeaser Neville Chamberlain. Bob Dole, the Senate Republican leader said, “I don’t trust Gorbachev,” thereby implying that Reagan was naive to believe he could do business with a Russian. And conservative leader Howard Phillips complained (this is my favorite) that Reagan had become “the useful idiot for Kremlin propaganda.”The difference between 1987 and 2010 is that, back in the day, the shrillest conservatives were pundits and grassroots outsiders. Now they’re Washington insiders (people like Kyl and Jim DeMint), as well as wannabee insiders (Mitt Romney was an early New START foe). This portends trouble for Obama down the road. The Senate Republican contingent will soon be enhanced by new members, many with a more rightward tilt. The GOP’s unified opposition to the new pact with Russia has clearly collapsed (the National Review ruefully refers to it as a “rout”), but that’s not likely to happen again. Obama wants to revive a long-stalled treaty banning nuclear tests; given the new ideological math in the Senate, the odds of passage are slightly worse than the odds of Lindsay Lohan opening a drivers’ ed school.Today’s treaty ratification may prove to be a rare break from the brutal rules of contemporary partisan combat. Still, here’s a basic template worthy of consideration: In a speech 23 years ago this week, Reagan said that “any successful American foreign policy must be built, not upon a Republican or Democratic consensus, but upon an American consensus.” Now that a sufficient number of Senate Republicans have ensured an American consensus on the new pact with Russia, let’s hope that this bipartisan spirit will resurface again. Call it a holiday wish.

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