Treaties, Fear-Mongering, and the Limits of the Bully Pulpit
John Bellinger’s op-ed in today’s New York Times, “Obama’s Weakness on Treaties,” is clear on an important tactical issue on treaty passage but somewhat muted on a more improtant, strategic, issue. His main argument is that, given rising Republican intransigence against treaties–any treaties–, President Obama should be trying harder to pass treaties like the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
OK, but I think Bellinger’s argument puts the emphasis on the wrong issue. It should be, given rising Republican intransigence against treaties–any treaties–, President Obama needs to work harder than previous Presidents to get any treaty passed. (And, I would add, the President actually may not be the most important voice in this discussion.)
The question of emphasis is not about the blame game. There are plenty of missteps to go around and Bellinger catalogues those of the Administration. But there have always been missteps and false starts; the difference is that now there are so many Republicans who refuse to even consider the possibility of treaty passage as an end point. The Obama administration may have made a tactical error with the timing of when it brought the Disabilities Convention to the Senate, but the bigger issue, the issue that Republican foreign policy leaders really need to address, is the black helicopter talk and fear-mongering by the right wing.
The ironic thing, of course, is the great heritage of internationalism in the Republican party. A heritage being carried forward by leaders like John Bellinger and Richard Lugar. But then again, Senator Lugar was defeated in his own primary by a Tea Party Republican. So what I would say to Bellinger is this: your advice to the President is helpful, but the elephant in the room is that the Republican base is scared and is not interested in listening to the President, especially on the issue of treaties. There is a limit to what the President, who is constantly villified on right wing radio and TV, can do to calm the Republican base on the issue of treaties, which are incessantly described by right wing pundits and pols as giving away our sovereignty and capitulating to the UN. In other words, by these mutually reinforcing arguments, the person you would most like to use the bully pulpit to ensure passage of these treaties is the person least likely to be trusted by the right wing.
So, my advice to my Republican friends would be this: Please talk amongst yourselves a little bit. This is a moment for Republicans to calm their own party’s fears about treaties. We can have a great national dialogue about which treaties to sign, but first we need to have someone to talk to. Right now, what you hear coming from the Republican Party is “No, No, No.” No to this treaty. No to that treaty. No to any treaty. Of course there are Republicans who at times support the passage of various treaties. But far too few. Thirty-eight Republican senators voted against the Disabilities Convention, largely focusing on its (perceived) implications for that Tea Party favorite issue, home schooling.
I’m sure the Administration will work on improving the timing of when it brings treaties to the Senate and on its bully pulpit issues. But relying on the bully pulpit has its limits. I prefer reasoned discourse. It is one thing not to push as hard as possible for a treaty; it is another to constantly push against any and all treaties. That is the real problem. And that is a problem that the Republican leadership and punditocracy, not the President, is in the best position to address. Should they choose to do so.