The Iran nuclear deal may be good policy — and a legacy builder for President Barack Obama — but it also creates a tougher political environment for Democrats running for president and Congress in 2016.
"Overall, this is a deal that will probably come at a price on the campaign trail," said Princeton University political science professor Julian Zelizer, who has written about the short-term political pain of past treaties. "Republicans will play to the fears among voters, including Democrats, that this is too risky."
The best proof of the thorny politics: Obama already has vowed to veto planned legislation blocking the deal. That means he will rely on just one-third of either the House or Senate voting with him to save it. He needs a majority of Democrats but only a minority of either chamber. That paradigm — Republicans uniformly opposed and Democrats divided — will make the agreement a tougher sell to the broader public than if it had bipartisan majority support or even full backing from Obama's Democrats.
"The easier vote for most us will be no," said one House Democrat who is inclined to back the president. Members don't tend to lose their seats for voting against the president when his position ends up winning, the lawmaker explained.
On the other side, it's easy for Republican candidates to be against Obama and his foreign policy — it plays well with their base — and they were vocal in their criticism of the deal even before they'd had a chance to read all the details. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker flicked at how the GOP will go after Democrats on the deal.
"President Obama has abandoned the bipartisan principles that have guided our nonproliferation policy and kept the world safe from nuclear danger for decades," Walker said in a statement. "Instead of making the world safer, this deal will likely lead to a nuclear arms race in the world’s most dangerous region."
The larger issue here is that in the waning light of his presidency, Obama is increasingly making policy in areas that divide Democrats — from trade to the Iran deal — and they are concerned that his political incentives no longer match theirs. They know that Obama, who refers to the last two years of his presidency as the "fourth quarter," is running a two-minute drill to secure as much of his legacy as possible before he leaves office. And those goals may not always serve their political futures.
Why this is so difficult for Democrats
From the White House's perspective — and that of many Democrats — the deal with Iran is far preferable to leaving in place a sanctions regime that doesn't actually stop Tehran from developing a nuclear weapon or going to war with Iran.
Under the pact, Iran would give up its nuclear weapons program in exchange for the lifting of certain economic sanctions, which would make it less of a nuclear threat and more stable. The key is whether the inspections and enforcement provisions of the deal can be implemented effectively and whether Iran's loss of nuclear capability is verifiable.
And therein lies the rub for Democrats on the ballot in 2016. The deal won't be consecrated for months. Republicans charge that it's not airtight — that Obama is putting his faith in the trustworthiness of the Iranian regime. The truth is that the next election is too soon to judge whether Iran is complying with its end of the bargain, which leaves Democrats open to Republican attacks that the deal is a disaster. It will be hard for Democratic candidates to prove a negative.
One House Democrat who is generally supportive of the president — and open to the deal — expressed hope Tuesday that the Senate would sustain an Obama veto of legislation blocking the deal so that House Democrats wouldn't have to vote on it at all. It's easier for Obama to round up 34 senators than 146 House Democrats, the lawmaker argued — even though conventional wisdom holds that the opposite is true.
Obama's interests and those of fellow Democrats are diverging in the "fourth quarter"
There was a time, earlier in his administration, when fellow Democrats would have walked the plank for Obama without letting their political concerns slow them down. Those days are over.
"It is not unusual as a president comes to the last months of his administration, particularly if it's his second term, that members of his party become a little less willing to follow the president's lead," former Sen. Bob Graham, a Florida Democrat and onetime chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said.
Obama's incentives are necessarily different from those of his Democratic allies in Congress. While he's focused on policy and legacy, they are focused on policy and winning reelection. Increasingly, Obama has used tools that don't require full Democratic support to implement policy — such as executive actions and the Iran deal. Still, Democrats know they will be held accountable for his actions, particularly if they can't show that they opposed him on a specific issue.
Jim Manley, a former aide to the late Sen. Ted Kennedy and Minority Leader Harry Reid, said the dynamics of a congressional disapproval vote — which would set up the veto and the one-third threshold necessary to sustain it — give the president an advantage.
"I think in the end, the president will have enough Democrats with him to sustain a veto," Manley said. "For many Democrats, the politics of this are so tricky they will be forced to vote against their president."
If it's such bad politics for 2016, why did Hillary Clinton endorse the deal?
Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential frontrunner, endorsed the deal in a private meeting with House Democrats Tuesday, telling them it is worthy of their support.
That's an easier call for Clinton than it might seem. While she'll take flak from Republicans who say Democrats are too trusting of Iran, Clinton could hardly walk away from the agreement.
It was her aides at the State Department — including Jake Sullivan, who is now the top policy adviser on her campaign — who began secret negotiations with Iranian officials several years ago. To back out now, Clinton would be not only turning her back on the Democratic president but also exposing herself to charges of flip-flopping.