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Trump's visit to the Capitol shows political risk for Democrats in Iran deal

Republican presidential candidates Ted Cruz (left) and Donald Trump (right) shake hands in front of the Capitol at a rally against the Iran nuclear deal.
Republican presidential candidates Ted Cruz (left) and Donald Trump (right) shake hands in front of the Capitol at a rally against the Iran nuclear deal.
Jonathan Allen/Vox

Pro tip for decoding who lost the Iran policy fight: It's the side doing all the shouting.

On Wednesday, Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump, 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, and 2016 hopeful Ted Cruz took their turns at a makeshift podium at the foot of the Capitol and inveighed against President Barack Obama's nuclear nonproliferation deal with Iran. The Tea Party faithful, numbering as many as a few thousand, sweltered beneath the blazing sun on a humid late-summer day. They held anti-Obama signs and waved American and Israeli flags.

Trump, wearing wingtips and dabbing his brow with a white towel before he took the stage, told the crowd that in all his years of cutting deals, he'd never seen an agreement "so incompetently negotiated" as the Iran pact. "We are led by very, very stupid people," he said.

It didn't seem to matter to Trump or the audience that opponents of the deal don't have the votes to stop Obama from implementing the agreement. But that is, in part, the point. What they have now is the hope that flaws with the Iran deal will help convince enough Americans that it's time to put a Republican — and an anti-establishment Republican — in the White House. It's a paradox of politics: Losing can be good politically for a movement, offering a cause to rally against.

Case in point: Across town, in the decidedly more comfortable and very established confines of the Brookings Institution, the Democratic frontrunner, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, already had delivered a forceful approval of the deal. In a nod to the trepidation felt by many Americans, she outlined the steps she would take to ensure the agreement doesn't end up increasing the threat Iran poses to Israel.

"Don't trust, and verify," she said of her stance toward the Iranians.

The numbers say the Iran deal isn't popular, and Clinton's delicate balancing act suggests she knows that

Clinton's careful positioning, reinforced by three former State Department officials on a conference call after the speech and a batch of talking points blasted to Clinton's political surrogates, underscored why Trump, Palin, and Cruz were mining for political gold at the Capitol: The American public doesn't trust Iran.

A Pew poll conducted September 3 through 7 showed that 49 percent of Americans oppose the agreement, while 21 percent support it and 30 percent report not knowing enough about it to make a determination.

Clinton had little choice but to support the deal. The first phases of the negotiations were carried out under her direction as secretary of state. But rather than just deliver an endorsement, Clinton sought to frame the pact as a starting point for a broader strategy in the region that would contain Iran's influence and bolster Israel's defenses.

She said it was an imperfect deal, and laid out a five-point plan for making it part of larger US strategy in the region:

  1. Boosting US support for Israel's defense
  2. Strengthening the US relationships with allies in the Gulf region
  3. Building a coalition to fight the terrorist groups Hezbollah and Hamas
  4. Demanding human rights reforms in Iran and pursue the return of Iranian-held Americans
  5. Implementing a regional strategy that "promotes stability and counters extremism"

Most telling is the way Clinton spoke about the opponents of the deal. Rather than portraying them in all in a negative light, she sought to cleave those who dissent from those who promise to reverse the agreement:

I respect differences of opinion, and people who advocate vigorously for their beliefs. But I have a harder time respecting those who approach an issue as serious as this with unserious talk — especially anyone running to be President of the United States.

Trump and Cruz see an opportunity

Trump and Cruz have proven their ability to tap into public anxiety about major issues confronting the country — Obamacare, immigration, and now the Iran deal.

Cruz, who invited Trump to an event sponsored in part by the Tea Party Patriots organization, is perhaps the most vocal advocate of reversing the deal. And of the dozens of speakers who lined up to criticize the agreement — including Palin, radio talk show host Mark Levin, and former CIA Director Jim Woolsey — Cruz was among the most impassioned and evocative.

"I want to ask every Senate Democrat, 'How will you look in the eyes of the mother or father or sons or daughters of those who are murdered by jihadists, those Americans who are blown up, those American who are shot, those Israelis who are murdered?'" Cruz said. "And let me be clear if you vote to send billions of dollars to jihadists who pledge to murder Americans, then you bear direct responsibility for the murders carried out with the dollars you have given."

He said Democrats who support the deal should fall to their knees, pray, and reconsider their votes.

Trump, who took the stage to the R.E.M.'s "It's the End of the World," refrained from saying he would tear up the deal — he has said before that he considers it a contract, no matter how badly negotiated. But he also criticized the Obama administration for signing that contract.

"With incompetent leadership like we have right now, Israel will not survive," he said.

Too little too late

Cruz spoke right before Trump — a good choice given that much of the crowd dissipated once Trump was done. I spoke to a few people who said they were there both to oppose the Iran deal and to get a glimpse of Trump.

"I'm not convinced that Trump is a true conservative, but the enemy of my enemy is my friend," said Brian McCormack, 68, who made the short trip from the Virginia suburbs to the Capitol Wednesday. "I judge him in part by all the people he antagonizes."

Flo Sickles, 56, of Oak Hill, Virginia, said she's drawn to Trump's "Make America Great Again" promise and the independence his wealth gives him.

"I love Donald Trump just because he can't be bought," she said.

And while Sickles said she was there to protest the Iran deal — "they want Israel wiped of the map," she said of the Iranians — she acknowledged that the event was probably too little too late.

It would have been more effective, she said, to have had a "million man march" on a weekend before Senate Democrats had gathered enough votes to stop a resolution disapproving of the deal.