Senator Barbara Mikulski’s support for the nuclear deal with Iran ensures enough Senate votes to sustain a presidential veto of a Republican bill to scuttle the deal. The New York Times has a fascinating overview of how skittish Democrats were convinced to support a deal many of them were reluctant to back and that until recently the political press declared in danger of collapsing.
According to the Times, the key figures besides Obama were Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. A White House official called Moniz a “secret weapon” who could explain the details clearly and persuasively. [Unmentioned by the Times is he even traveled to meet Senators in their home states.] Pelosi–probably the most underrated American politician of the last half century or so–ran a war room with a focus and urgency similar to her work in passing the Affordable Care Act. House Democrats helped create a sense of momentum by managing a carefully planned flow of nearly daily announcements of Democrats supporting the bill.
As described in the Times’ article, the administration & early Congressional supporters employed a variety of tactics and resources:
- Administration officials met personally with about 200 Senate and House Democrats
- Obama met personally with about 100 Democrats, & called 30 while on vacation
- The White House arranged meetings between Democrats and diplomats from the other partners to the agreement–Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China–who made clear there would be no new negotiations, nor continued sanctions
- Secretary of State John Kerry conveyed support for the deal from former heads of Israeli intelligence and internal security
- Letters from policy experts addressing concerns and arguments against the deal were passed to Democrats and the news media
- Pro-deal Democrats pushed back against negative news reports
- The messaging focused on the policy, and support for the policy was framed not as support for the President, but as agreement with his arguments for the deal
The tactics used by the opponents was much narrower:
- Opponents ran $20 million in TV ads against the deal
- Lobbyists & advocacy organizations opposed to the deal threatened retribution against Democrats who supported the deal
- The key validator put forth against the deal was Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, whom Republicans had brought to speak before Congress in March
- The messaging was partisan and intended to cast doubt on the deal and on the administration; according to a spokesman with the America Israel Political Action Committee, “this strong opposition conveys an important message to the world — especially foreign banks, businesses and governments — about the severe doubts in America concerning Iran’s willingness to meet its commitments and the long-term viability of this agreement”
According to the article, one Republican blamed their failure on news media focus on Donald Trump and on Hillary Clinton’s emails.
Let’s look at this from the perspective of the Democrats who were (and in a few remaining cases still are) making up their minds on this matter. They know Republicans have opposed nearly everything Obama ever proposes. They know that Netanyahu is opposed to the deal but experts whose job was not winning votes, but protecting Israel, are for the deal. Opponents told them that foreign banks, businesses and governments would react negatively if the US ignored Republican opposition, but they also heard foreign officials say the more negative response would come from the US opposing the deal. Democrats were told there would be political costs to supporting the deal, but no broad grassroots opposition ever materialized. And while opponents told Democrats about all the supposed problems with the deal, opponents never offered an alternative. It may not have been the solution Democrats wanted, but it was clear Republicans would not offer any alternative solution.
Eventually, Democrats saw that opposition to the deal was isolated along the Netanyahu-Boehner/McConnell axis, that the world powers were unified behind the policy, and that opponents had no policy. As for Trump undermining the effort, it’s a funny complaint, since Trump denounced the deal. Maybe the opposition failed not because Donald Trump took attention away from the argument, but because it was such a bad argument, that appealed to almost nobody outside the Republican base, that it was adopted by Donald Trump to get primary support from the Republican base.