Business & Lobbying

Democrats conflicted over how hard to hit Trump on Iran

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Democrats are conflicted over how hard to fight back against President Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal, one of the signature accomplishments of President Obama’s second term.

Liberals argue that Trump’s Iran policy undermines longstanding relationships with the nation’s strongest allies, Britain, France and Germany, and raises the likelihood of a military conflict with Iran.

But Democratic pollsters say health care and other domestic issues are voters’ top concerns, and Democratic leaders in Congress don’t want to stray too far away from these bread-and-butter topics when control of both chambers is at stake in November.


Complicating the strategy for Senate Democrats is Minority Leader Charles Schumer’s (N.Y.) past opposition to the Iran deal, which was strongly opposed by pro-Israel groups such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Schumer was one of four Senate Democrats who voted against the Iran deal; one of the others was Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), whose reelection race this fall will help decide the Senate majority in the next Congress.

Raising Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran deal brings up the division within the party over entering the agreement in the first place.

Schumer said he was still skeptical of the Iran agreement after Trump won the 2016 election, but he nevertheless urged the incoming president in November of that year not to withdraw from it. He has criticized Trump for pulling out of the Iran deal, even blaming the decision for rising gas prices during a press conference at a service station last week.

But Democrats haven’t waged a concerted messaging offensive on the issue such as those directed toward the GOP effort to repeal ObamaCare and Trump’s $1.5 million tax cut.

And some Democrats want their party to make more noise.

Jen Psaki, the former State Department spokesperson who worked under Secretary of State John Kerry, perhaps the U.S. leader most associated with the Iran deal, told The Hill it could be an effective midterm issue.

“If Democrats can make it about Donald Trump’s erratic behavior, inability to lead, poor standing in the world and Republicans following him and not speaking out, then it can be a winning issue,” said Psaki, who is now a commentator on CNN.

Psaki conceded that the issue’s effectiveness would depend on the state and congressional district, but added that, “with all of the Democratic candidates running who have national security backgrounds, many who are veterans, this could be a very strong issue.”

Liberal activists, who were furious with Schumer’s decision to oppose the deal in 2015, say Democrats are missing an opportunity to assail Trump’s foreign policy vision.

“It is remarkable that Democrats aren’t using this as a real opportunity to show just how chaotic and nonsensical Donald Trump’s foreign policy is,” said Neil Sroka, communications director for Democracy for America, a liberal advocacy group.

Democratic leadership aides on Capitol Hill dismissed the idea that focusing on the Iran deal would be a stronger political issue for the party in the midterms given Trump’s other controversies. They said the issue isn’t grabbing the national political spotlight, which suggests the party would be smarter to focus its message on other issues.

They noted the focus on different topics, such as Trump’s controversial moves on trade that have sparked criticism from GOP senators representing farm states and special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

Some critics who want the party to speak out more about Iran blame Schumer’s past opposition for hamstringing efforts to fight Trump’s Iran policy, even though Schumer now says it was a mistake to pull out of the deal.

The critics include Adam Jentleson, a former deputy chief of staff to former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). 

Jentleson said Schumer’s opposition to the deal from day one had hurt his party’s ability to defend “one of the biggest foreign policy accomplishments of the Obama administration.”

Jentleson also said Schumer had called Senate Democrats at the time to advise them to oppose the deal, a statement that prompted a furious pushback from Schumer allies, who said the former Reid spokesman was miscasting history.

“Leader Schumer has repeatedly said the U.S. shouldn’t have pulled out of the Iran deal and members of the caucus are free to discuss this as much as they want,” said a spokesman for Schumer.

A Politico report at the time said that Schumer had reached out to dozens of his colleagues to assure them he was not whipping colleagues against Obama’s deal. Senators quoted in the piece said it would not hurt his chances to succeed Reid to oppose the Iran deal.

“He understands that this a tough call,” Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) told Politico at the time. “He’s gonna respect everyone’s decision.”

Jentleson stood by his comments, however, that the calls were an effort by Schumer to push back against the deal.  

“He was a caucus leader trying to persuade members to be against the deal. Saying that’s not whipping is splitting hairs,” he said.

The day Trump announced he was withdrawing from the Iran deal, Schumer called the decision unwarranted and warned it would divide Western allies and make it tougher to crack down on Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed paramilitary group based in Lebanon that is sometimes labeled a terrorist organization.

“There are no reports that Iran has violated the agreement and to me, the greatest worries from Iran are not right now the nuclear side but rather what they’re doing in Syria, what they’re doing to arm Hezbollah with rockets, what they’re doing with ICBMs,” Schumer said in response to a question at a press conference.

Schumer criticized Trump again for pulling out of the Iran deal at a press conference last week that highlighted rising gas prices.

“According to energy analysts and experts, President Trump’s reckless decision to pull out of the Iran deal has led to higher oil prices,” Schumer said at an event held at an Exxon Mobil filling station on Capitol Hill.

But Democrats haven’t waged much of an offensive on the issue ahead of a midterm election in which the party is protecting seats in North Dakota, West Virginia, Missouri and Indiana, states easily won by Trump in 2016.

Some Democrats think that campaign map argues for emphasizing pocketbook issues rather than foreign policy — and particularly Iran.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.), the liberal Independent from Vermont who may run again for the Democratic presidential nomination, has been more outspoken on Iran than many of his colleagues.

Sanders held a town hall event on the consequences of Trump pulling out of the Iran deal earlier this month that attracted about 700,000 viewers.

Sanders also gave a live video response to Trump’s Iran decision on the same day the president made his announcement.

“This deal is definitely important and he’s been speaking out on the importance of it for a while now,” said Josh Miller-Lewis, a spokesman for Sanders.

A Democratic aide pointed to this as evidence of Schumer giving his caucus freedom to speak out as much as they want on the issue.

In Europe, the response to Trump’s decision has been withering, said William Drozdiak, a senior adviser at McLarty Associates and an expert on European relationsk.

“The sense of outrage and disappointment is extremely intense in all these capitals. They feel the United States is reneging on its word and therefore it calls into question the credibility of future American commitments,” he said on phone call from Brussels. 

But the debate on Capitol Hill simply hasn’t reflected the international uproar, he noted.

“I’m mystified why the Democrats haven’t made more of this. It just shows you how insular our politics has become,” Drozdiak said.

A Senate Democratic aide said part of the problem is that the Obama administration did a bad job selling the deal on Capitol Hill three years ago.

“There was an intellectual discomfort from the very beginning. Senate Democrats felt somewhat left out of the process,” said the aide.

Sroka said that while the public may have favored the Iran deal, it doesn’t necessarily drive voter behavior, which may explain why Democrats remain focused on domestic policy.

“I think a lot of Democrats think its wise to stay focused solely on the economic issues that this administration is flailing on and they aren’t using this as a big enough opportunity to talk about the chaos that Donald Trump is wrecking on the international stage,” he said.

Roger Hickey, co-director of Campaign for America’s Future, another progressive group, observed, “You don’t see a whole lot of candidates for office talking about this.”

“I think it is true that most Democrats are focused mainly on domestic policy,” he added.

Tags Bernie Sanders Charles Schumer Claire McCaskill Donald Trump Harry Reid Iran Iran nuclear deal Israel Joe Manchin John Kerry Robert Mueller

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