Iran-letter backlash spreads to early states

Politico explains how a political calculation went very wrong…

‘Policywise, the deal Obama is trying to cut is a bad one. Politically speaking, however, the letter has been a disaster.’

One-third of Republican insiders believe that Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton and his GOP colleagues — including several potential presidential candidates — crossed the line when they published an open letter to Iranian leaders warning about a possible nuclear deal.

This week’s survey of The POLITICO Caucus — a bipartisan group of key activists, operatives and thought leaders in Iowa and New Hampshire — also finds that Democratic insiders unanimously believe that Cotton & Co. behaved inappropriately.

Liberals feel strongly that the GOP would cry treason if a Democrat did what Cotton has under a Republican president. Though there is a split on the letter, conservatives across the board are deeply skeptical of any agreement between President Barack Obama’s administration and the Islamic Republic.

“The GOP letter — while sound in substance — caused the debate to shift from the administration’s wrongheadedness to the GOP’s tactics,” said a New Hampshire Republican, who — like all 92 respondents this week — completed the survey anonymously in order to speak candidly. “That’s not helpful.”

“Policy wise, the deal Obama is trying to cut is a bad one,” said another. “Politically speaking, however, the letter has been a disaster. The Democrats have totally framed and owned the debate, and our GOP senators are getting pummeled.”

Democrats feel strongly that the freshman’s gambit was not just a breach of protocol — one Iowan called it “borderline treasonous” — but a political “gift” that neutralizes an issue where they have been potentially vulnerable.

“The Republicans handed the Democrats a perfect issue going in to 2016,” said a New Hampshire Democrat. “No matter what they do from now until November 2016, Democrats have endless editorials to pull devastating quotes from to demolish the Republicans. Truly a gift.”

“I talked to a number of non-political Granite Staters who were, to be blunt, shocked by its appalling lack of respect for the presidency,” said another, “by its undermining of American credibility and by what they felt was essentially an un-patriotic act.”

As a third Democrat up north put it, “Since when does almost half the United States Senate pull a Dennis Rodman and engage in homebrew diplomacy with a dangerous regime behind the President’s back?”

Here are five other takeaways on this Friday, the 13th, edition of The POLITICO Caucus:

The saliency of foreign policy is bloodying Rand Paul.

Four in five insiders believe that the recent dominance of foreign policy hurts the presidential hopes of Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.).

Paul was one of 47 members to sign the letter — along with Ted Cruz (Texas), Marco Rubio (Fla.), and Lindsey Graham (S.C.). Several likely presidential candidates outside the Senate have enthusiastically backed the letter as well, including Bobby Jindal, Rick Perry and Rick Santorum. Jeb Bush neither endorsed nor condemned the letter — saying only that the senators are “reacting to reports of a bad deal,” and the administration should have done more to communicate along the way.

But Paul has cultivated a reputation as a non-interventionist, and his father is widely considered even more of an isolationist. Doubts persist, despite his efforts to reassure Jewish donors, that he would not try to cut off foreign aid to Israel, as he suggested in the past.

“While he has moderated his position on several foreign policy issues, if this election becomes about foreign policy and national security — and I believe it will — Rand Paul loses,” said a New Hampshire Republican.

“It shows how flawed Rand Paul’s theory of the case was coming into 2016,” added another. “Hawks are back in vogue, and he is the odd man out, regardless of signing the letter.”

“Isolationism doesn’t work when Americans get killed,” said a nonpartisan insider.

Influentials in both parties think the rise of the Islamic State has helped knock Paul off message. It’s harder for him to talk about issues where he is more closely aligned with the GOP base.

“If it weren’t for Rand Paul’s positions on foreign policy, he would be the frontrunner in this race,” said an Iowa Republican. “His stances on these issues will prevent him from ever being the Republican nominee.”

“The GOP is the party of internationalism,” said a New Hampshire Republican. “Despite some doubts within the ranks, the rise of ISIS reminded the party why we need an aggressive foreign policy.”

Several Iowa Republicans said that the foreign policy fight reinforces the notion that he has a ceiling.

“Rand is not Ron [Paul], but he is no Ronald [Reagan] either,” said an Iowa Republican.

“He’s completely in a box,” another explained. “If he becomes more hawkish, he’ll lose the base of his libertarian support.”

An Iowa Republican who likes Paul defended him. “Americans believe in national defense, but are tired of seeing our troops nation-building and policing the world,” he said. “Senator Paul is the only GOP candidate who seems to get this. The rest seem anxious to put our troops into the middle of more Middle East conflicts and pile on to our $18-trillion debt.”

Most Democrats believe Hillary Clinton’s press conference made no difference.

Three-quarters of Democrats said that the former secretary of state’s Tuesday press conference at the United Nations won’t affect how she is perceived in their states. Among the quarter of those who think it will matter, an equal number said that the presser helped as said it hurt.

“Even the Clintons’ most ardent New Hampshire supporters will acknowledge that their closets are likely packed with skeletons,” said a Democrat there. “While EmailGate may remind those of us uncommitted New Hampshire Democrats why we are so leery of a Clinton Administration 2.0, it means next to nothing to the vast majority of  Democrats. They will accept a daily, non-stop political soap opera for eight years if it means having a female Democratic president.”

Another New Hampshire Democrat wished she’d had her press conference immediately after the New York Times posted its story, instead of waiting a full week. “The fact that she waited so long to explain adds to the perception that she had something to hide,” he said. “So, yes, she will get past this one, but she has not and will not shake the trust hurdle until she starts to rapidly respond to the thousands of bombs and paper cuts coming her way.”

An Iowa Democrat who thinks the press conference hurt Clinton explained that the emails won’t change the trajectory of the race but they solidified unease with Clinton on the left.

Democrats think Clinton will be able to move beyond this story without turning over her personal emails.

Clinton suggested that she has already deleted personal emails and would not turn over the ones that she has not. Nine in 10 Democrats said she will get beyond this kerfuffle without turning over the personal emails she has not deleted. One third of Republicans think she can avoid it, and the rest think she will eventually be compelled to.

Several Democrats think it depends on what happens in the courts, where the fight appears headed.

“She can ride out this story with the average voter, but the press may not let up their efforts,” said a New Hampshire Democrat. “In the end, she may choose to release personal emails but it would only be after months of press harassment and a determination that the contents are less harmful than the perpetuation of unsubstantiated press suspicion.”

The lion share of Democrats argued that real people are moving on or didn’t really engage in the first place. “Outside of D.C. no one cares,” said one in New Hampshire. “Local reporters aren’t engaged. It is hard to remember a news cycle with a bigger gap between cable coverage and local engagement.”

“No one has asked me about her emails or where she stored them,” said a Clinton supporter. “It is clear that this issue matters only to Republican politicians and the chattering class.”

“It’s such a D.C. punditocracy driven story,” said another. “Also, people are going to resent the idea that someone’s personal emails should be disclosed to press. The media — and Republicans — [are] really overreaching here.”

Another Iowa Democrat thinks Clinton will weather demands for her email but added, “The thing we have yet to see is if her deleted 30,000 emails will equate with Nixon’s 18 1/2 minutes.”

Democrats believe blowback from the Iran letter will seriously damage Sen. Kelly Ayotte.

The weekly questionnaire did not ask about the New Hampshire Senate race, in which the Republican is seeking a second term. But most Granite State Democrats brought her up anyway. Several noted individually that Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins refused to sign the letter while Ayotte did.

“Independent and Democratic voters will remember this as a watershed event,” said one. “It will haunt Kelly Ayotte and others into the 2016 election.”

Pushing back on questions about Clinton emails, a bunch of Democrats argued that Ayotte’s signature on the Iran letter generated way more buzz. “Backlash over the GOP senator’s letter is dominating instate coverage, and she is the face of it,” said one.

One Democrat stressed that her signature “may have reinvigorated the venom of New Hampshire Democrats this week”: “The last thing she needs is a target on her back in a moderate swing state in a presidential election year, yet that’s what Tom Cotton gave her.”

Ayotte defended her position, arguing that sanctions passed by Congress brought Iran to the negotiating table in the first place. “With so much at stake, I believe the Senate should have an opportunity to review any agreement reached between the U.S. and Iran and vote to approve or disapprove that agreement,” she said in a Tuesday statement.

It will be untenable for Republican presidential candidates to endorse any agreement Obama reaches with Iran — no matter what it is.

Only one of 45 Republicans who completed the questionnaire said there wouldn’t be negative repercussions if a candidate supported an Obama-Iran deal.

“Supporting the Obama deal on Iran would go over like a lead balloon in a Republican primary,” said a New Hampshire Republican, voicing a widely-held belief.

“Most people I talk to do not think we should even be negotiating with Iran,” said an Iowa Republican.

Another Hawkeye State Republican said Cotton’s letter is the kind of check-and-balance that voters had in mind when they gave the GOP control of the Senate last November: “He and those who signed the letter were just doing what they told their electorate they would do.”

The specifics of the Iran deal matter to Democrats, quite a few of whom said they will withhold judgment until they see the details.

“I think candidates from both parties will run away from it,” predicted an uncommitted nonpartisan.

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