Wedge issues go nuclear

Partisanship again carries the day on Capitol Hill as Republicans force a delay on the ratification vote of the New START treaty. Now this critical piece of national-security business gets delayed until after the midterm elections. That could be a good thing — but only if proponents get serious about waging a campaign in support of the treaty.

Those opposed to New START understand the real world of advocacy politics and have quickly gained the upper hand over the more traditional and cautious groups that have historically lobbied quietly behind the scenes for disarmament measures. The Heritage Foundation has launched an organization called Heritage Action for America and is rolling out a powerful grassroots machine, an earned-media blitz and a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign to energize its Republican base. A group called Liberty Central, affiliated with the Tea Party movement, is doing the same. Right now, they are winning.

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Both groups understand that a slim minority of voters — about 28 percent, according to a CNN/Opinion Research poll; slightly more (33 percent) in a Quinnipiac study — are actually opposed to Senate ratification of the treaty. But that is an important minority. The Republican right has done a very effective job this year of forcing GOP candidates to adopt or at least give lip service to its agenda. New START is no exception. The GOP leadership has posed a list of 700 “questions” it wants answered before there is a vote. Much of that list and the opposition to the treaty comes from the ideological absolutism of the party’s right wing or just because it is a handy tool to deny President Obama a “victory” before the midterm elections.

But this is not just an Obama initiative. Six former secretaries of State and five former secretaries of Defense from both parties support the treaty. Virtually all former commanders of U.S. nuclear forces do as well. These experts realize that the nuclear status quo is not sustainable in world where terrorists have pledged to acquire nuclear weapons. The material to make them, or the weapons themselves, are scattered throughout 40 different countries around the globe — 40 countries where security is often lax and there is all too often a history of black-market dealing in weapons and fissile nuclear material.

But that would be a real-world problem — not a political opportunity. Never mind that we perpetuate a dangerous status quo while Washington politicians maneuver for political advantage in an election year. The president is unpopular and Democrats on Capitol Hill are fearful. Let’s whip up the enthusiasm of the conservative base in hopes of taking control of Congress.

With some smart messaging, the partisan nature of this debate could well work against Republicans. (Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, a man who is more of a statesman than a partisan, is the only Republican now supporting the treaty.) Those who favor New START should be mounting an aggressive media, Internet and grassroots campaign pointing out that congressional opposition to the treaty is purely partisan. Over 60 percent of voters disapprove of the job Congress is doing — almost 15 points worse than the president’s rating. The primary frustration with Congress is partisanship. Voters are tired of political posturing and making the good of the nation subservient to partisan goals.

Now that the Bolton/Gingrich/Palin wing of the GOP has succeeded in delaying a vote, those in favor of New START should go on offense. Frame partisanship as the obstacle to making our nation more secure. Force Republican candidates to choose between their primary voters, who are nearly evenly split on the treaty (43 percent in favor and 48 percent opposed) and independents and Democrats who favor ratification overwhelmingly — 63 percent and 74 percent, respectively.

Republican candidates especially need independent voters in this election, and their opposition to the treaty can become a wedge issue. At the very least, it can force Republicans to support the treaty rather than be obstructionist. But to accomplish that goal, proponents of New START need to start playing a much tougher game than they have to date. This is not an academic discussion to be held in quiet rooms among polite and learned friends. As two new documentaries now in circulation make clear, it may well be a question of life and death for millions on our planet. (In the interest of full disclosure, I wrote and directed one of those films, “Nuclear Tipping Point.”) Those opposed to this treaty are playing partisan hardball. It is time for proponents to do the same.

Goddard is a founding partner of 
political consultants Goddard Claussen. E-mail: ben@gcsa.com