Since his inauguration in 2009, President Obama’s harshest critics — all Republicans — have grown increasingly disdainful, resentful, even hateful. The most bellicose among them question his legitimacy, doubt his birth certificate and impugn his patriotism. And, all the while, leading Republican politicians have pandered to those ugly impulses.
This week, that disrespect for Obama and his presidency reached a new low when 47 Republican senators wrote a letter to Iranian leaders suggesting that any deal with him will be overturned once he leaves office. According to experts, that action is without precedent in American history. And it will go down, perhaps, as the nadir for a Republican Party already deformed by an aging and bigoted base.
President Obama’s foreign policy team is attempting to negotiate an agreement wherein Iran gives up its ambition of becoming a nuclear state. The negotiations may fail, but it’s certainly worth a try.
But GOP hardliners are opposed to even trying to negotiate an agreement. Additionally, they’d welcome any opportunity to try to embarrass Obama on the international stage.
Speaker John Boehner had already crossed all sorts of boundaries when he invited Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress — and didn’t bother to inform the president. Now, Boehner’s fellow partisans in the Senate have written a letter, dripping with condescension toward the Iranians, which suggests that the next president would likely overturn any agreement that Obama makes. (Since they don’t know who’ll be in the Oval Office in 2017, they can hardly make that prediction.)
This is outrageous — and a clear violation of the Logan Act, passed in 1799. It says that any unauthorized citizen “who directly or indirectly … carries on any correspondence with any foreign government … with intent to influence the conduct of that government … or to defeat the measures of the United States” may be imprisoned. In other words, the founders of the republic recognized the danger in allowing individual citizens to conduct their own ad hoc foreign policy.
Does Obama’s race have something to do with this level of hostility and disrespect for his office? If I may use a favorite phrase of Sarah Palin, one of the president’s most reliable haters, “You betcha!” There is a reliable, if aging, constituency in the GOP that simply cannot stomach a black president.
Sure, Republicans were hostile and unhinged when Bill Clinton was president. Some among them claimed he was tied to Arkansas drug dealers. Some insisted that his wife, Hillary, had killed Vince Foster, a White House aide who committed suicide. A GOP-led Congress impeached Clinton.
And, yes, there have long been bitter disagreements over foreign policy, going back to the beginning of the republic. (That helps to explain the passage of the Logan Act.) But politics generally stopped, as the cliche goes, “at the water’s edge.”
Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a longtime Congress-watcher, told Politico that this letter plows new ground in partisanship. “What’s unusual about this — but completely in tune with what’s happened in Washington in recent years — is the contempt with which it treats the president,” he said.
If those 47 Republican senators were engaged in an honest effort to forestall a nuclear Iran, they would never have written such a letter. Senator Bob Corker (R-TN), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, pointedly didn’t sign the letter because, he said, he needed to reach across the aisle in order to strengthen the agreement. (Seven GOP senators did not sign it.)
Earlier, several Democratic senators had indicated a willingness to work with Republicans to pass legislation that would give Congress a vote on any accord with Iran. Now, those Democrats are fuming over the disrespect shown Obama and are unlikely to go along with any GOP legislation.
But that’s not the greatest damage done by this gesture of contempt for Obama. Since Republicans have shown themselves willing to threaten the nation’s credibility on the world stage in order to embarrass a sitting president, they’ve set a precedent. Those are the new rules of the game, and they’re likely to be followed by Democrats and Republicans in the future — no matter who’s in the Oval Office.
That’s bad news.
Cynthia Tucker won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2007. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mike Maguire via Flickr