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January 27, 2014 11:36 AM Potential Candidates Circle Iran Issue Warily

By Ed Kilgore

It’s unlikely at this point that foreign policy issues are going to be front-and-center in the 2016 presidential contest. But you never know, and even if they don’t talk much about it, the international viewpoint of would-be presidents could matter a lot. So I’m grateful to my friend Heather Hurlburt for her quick summary of where various wannabes stand on the top foreign policy issue du jour, the negotiations with Iran (and the new sanctions being proposed in Congress that could and are probably intended to screw up said negotiations.

It’s no surprise that several Republican hopefuls are competing to see who can bash the administration’s foreign policy the hardest. And policy that involves talking with favorite bogeyman Iran is an irresistible target. One thing these hopefuls — Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, to name a few — know how to do is get media coverage and occupy airspace.
As soon as the interim nuclear deal with Iran was signed in November 2013, Cruz and Rubio fired off press statements and posed under the bright lights of news cameras. “The administration has gotten it backwards and it is time to reverse course before any further damage is done,” Cruz said in a statement. Rubio, who’d struck a moderate tone in previous foreign-policy outings, sharpened his rhetoric and showcased his policy chops in a statement: “This agreement shows other rogue states that wish to go nuclear that you can obfuscate, cheat, and lie for a decade, and eventually the United States will tire and drop key demands.” Mid-negotiation, Cruz and Rubio, as well as Wall Street darling Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, co-sponsored controversial legislation to impose yet even more sanctions on Iran.

It’s a particular gut test for Rubio, who’s tried to raise his profile as a national security hardliner of late. Other potential GOP candidates are more cautious:

Not every potential Republican challenger thinks being front and center to oppose the Iran deal is a winning strategy. Last summer, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie seemed ready to take on the mantle of traditional GOP foreign policy, critiquing fellow 2016 hopeful Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky for his views on counterterrorism and the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs, which ignited a nasty summer feud between the two. But now, both he and Paul — who has spoken and voted against moves toward war with Iran — have been remarkably quiet. Christie outraged the conservative blogosphere by declining to comment on the talks while they were still in process: “I’m the governor of New Jersey, and I think a lot of people … are significantly better briefed on this than I am.… When guys like me start to shoot off on opinions about this kind of stuff, it’s really ill-advised.” (Quite a contrast to his voluble response to Bridgegate.)

Still other Republicans are reflexively bashing Obama on general principles:

Other Republican governors piped up in early November 2013, just before the deal was signed: Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal issued a statement saying that the talks had lost momentum, which was “a positive sign that common sense and security are prevailing.” In Wisconsin, when a reporter asked Gov. Scott Walker what foreign-policy strengths he would bring to the White House, he didn’t miss a beat: “a toughness … absent from the White House on areas such as Syria and Iran,” as the reporter characterized his remarks. But since the deal was signed on Nov. 24, the country’s governors — including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (who has criticized Obama’s Iran policy in the past) — have stayed out of the fray entirely.

Hurlburt goes on to note that possible Democratic presidential candidates have been very quiet as well, even those who are cosponsoring the sanctions bill or have more generally supported a hard-line on Iran:

In recent years, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley have trumpeted state-level initiatives to sanction and constrain Iran — but since the deal, neither has uttered a peep. In fact, this month, when Cuomo announced the settlement of an investigation into bank violations of existing Iran sanctions, the governor actively ducked a reporter’s question on the recent nuclear accord.
Virginia Sen. Mark Warner and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker co-sponsored the new sanctions bill, but didn’t oppose the agreement or the talks. Meanwhile Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, on the radar for 2016, has seemed to praise the sanctions bill, but declined to co-sponsor it.

It’s obviously prudent for potential presidential candidates (other than professional, 24-7 Obama bashers like Cruz) to wait out the negotiations with Iran and see what happens. But it’s probably also a reflection of the general feeling that at this moment in American history, there’s not much to be gained from being outspoken on foreign policy, at least outside the occasional partisan feeding frenzy. For Republicans, why wade too deeply into the Iranian nuke issue when you can signal your toughness to “the base” via yet another statement on Benghazi!, an event safely in the rearview mirror with assigned heroes and villains? This seems to be a question some GOPers have asked and answered.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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