When a political campaign is at full throttle, it is easy to think that any disagreement is mostly a partisan disagreement. Given the current disposition of the parties, that would mean an ideological disagreement. The current exchange on Iran’s nuclear ambitions sounds like that, but I don’t think it really is. Here’s a thoughtful piece from this morning’s New York Times.
I think the position President Obama has taken is a discretion-enhancing attitude. This is not at all unusual for presidents, who will be the ones to exercise discretion. Candidates tend to take a fear-enhancing (on this case) or a condemnatory position.
This means turning the current debate about 85 degrees. There is not a pro-Israeli party and a pro-Iranian party. There is not a pro-military position and a pro-diplomatic position. What we have instead is a position taken by the decision maker, the goal of which is to allow him to juggle all the balls as long as necessary—but without losing the support of the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). The Republicans are trying to scare people by imagining forthcoming horrors for Israel and to court AIPAC by taking a more bellicose stand than any sitting president—including any of the current candidates—could afford to take if he was the one who had to make the decision.
This way of looking at things requires the analyst to leave verbal style out of consideration. No one will deny that Gingrich, Santorum, and Romney have different rhetorical styles and whatever position any of them took on the issue of Iran’s nuclear ambitions would use that style. Ron Paul appears to have an entirely different position, the headline of which is “I won’t interfere with Israel’s Self-defense.” I think that means, “OK guys, you’re on your own.”
But if Mitt Romney were president now and the cast of the Democratic party candidates were up against him—Obama, Clinton, Dodd, Biden, Edwards, Gravel, and Richardson—they would say the same kinds of things. They would not necessarily take the position that the Republicans are taking now, but they would take a position that they hoped would have the same effect. Candidates want to reduce the latitude for decision of the sitting president and to move him away from powerful groups (AIPAC, in this case) and contrary to public opinions. If President Romney cited the need to consult allies, he would get dinged for failing to put “America First.” If he directly threatened military intervention, he would get dinged for being a warmonger.
The strong language of the campaign makes this look like a war between Democrats and Republicans. It is not. It is not a war, it is a dance. And it is not between Democrats and Republicans; it is between the “ins,” who get to make the decision, but who are responsible for fifty other decisions at the same time, and “outs” who have no immediate goals except winning.