Sneak Attack

When conservatives decided to rally against the Iran deal, no one expected their real target would be Republican leaders.

An activist prays at the Stop the Iran Nuclear Deal Rally on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., Sept. 9, 2015.

Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

No one expected many of the attendees at Wednesday’s Stop the Iran Deal Rally on Capitol Hill to have warm feelings toward the Democratic presidential administration that just negotiated a nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic of Iran. But less expected was that the antipathy spread even more profoundly to members of the Republican leadership.

“Obama is a black, Jew-hating, jihadist putting America and Israel and the rest of the planet in grave danger,” said Bob Kunst of Miami. Kunst—pairing a Hillary Clinton rubber mask with a blue T-shirt reading “INFIDEL”—was holding one sign that accused Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John Kerry of “Fulfilling Hitler’s Dreams” and another that queried, “DIDN’T WE LEARN ANYTHING FROM 1938?” His only reassurance was that, when Iran launches its attack on the mainland, it’ll be stopped quickly by America’s heavily armed citizenry.

Not every attendee or speaker at the rally, organized by the Tea Party Patriots, was as colorful as Kunst. As with many right-wing rallies during the Obama era—though this is the rare occasion that dealt with a foreign policy agreement—normally dressed citizens concerned about policy consequences were intermixed with howling conservative activists carrying bombastic, crude signs. One of most common placards came in several versions with different legislators’ names—Sen. Ed Markey, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, and so on—inscribed on a drawing of a first-generation atomic bomb under which read, “Will your name be on Iran’s bomb?”

But both Markey and Klobuchar have already signaled their support for the Joint Plan of Action, along with 40 other Democratic and independent senators. Under the Corker–Cardin framework for debating the nuclear agreement, that’s enough to successfully filibuster any attempt to prevent President Obama from waiving nuclear sanctions on Iran. The deal will go through.

So shouldn’t a rally of this nature have been held, say, in late July, before Obama had the votes he needed? “That would have been preferable,” said Bill from Damascus, Maryland.

Heading into Wednesday afternoon, the Stop the Iran Deal Rally felt more like a coda for a failed summer campaign to scuttle the deal than a useful means of accomplishing anything. The deal’s grassroots opponents originally seemed to believe that members would be so overwhelmed with protests against the accord when they were home for their August recess that nary a one would dare return to Washington and allow the administration’s deal to skirt through. But even though the deal polls abysmally, the administration was able to successfully whip nearly all Senate Democrats in its favor. It will be implemented now—that is, until at least January 2017, when President Marco Rubio or Scott Walker tears it up on Day 1, or President Trump begins the process of “renegotiating” it in a way that Makes America Great Again.

But try telling that to these folks. And especially try telling them that Congress, specifically the Republican leaders in Sen. Mitch McConnell and Speaker John Boehner, have no tools at their disposal to stop it.

That’s how Tea Party Patriots and other affiliated groups conveniently shifted the focus of their rally once Senate supporters crossed the threshold of 34 votes last week: The deal will only go through if the Republican establishment allows it to pass. President Obama may “make Neville Chamberlain look like George Patton,” in the words of right-wing talk radio personality Mark Levin, but the Republican leaders would be even worse by allowing him to get away with it.

Freshman Rep. Dave Brat, aka the Cantor Slayer, elicited stronger boos by mentioning the names “McConnell and Boehner” than any mention of the name “Obama” did all day. “Leadership got us into this mess, and they’re the only ones who can get us out,” he said to cheers, as music began to play signaling that his brief speaking window had closed. “The situation we’re in is a product of weak leadership.”

Frank Gaffney, the former Reagan administration Defense Department official who has since built a career trafficking in entertainingly grim paranoia, declared that “if Republican leaders in the Senate and House do not stop the deal—which they can—their names will be on the bombs.” Right there with Sens. Markey, Klobuchar, and the rest.

The plan they’re alluding to is a fast-moving one that, within the past 48 hours, has sent congressional Republicans into chaos. “All that has to happen,” Sen. Ted Cruz said to the crowd, “is for Mitch McConnell and John Boehner to say the review period hasn’t started.” This alludes to a push by Rep. Peter Roskam and other conservatives wherein Republican leaders would argue that Obama has not presented the “full” nuclear agreement before Congress; it doesn’t include, as Politico reports, “so-called ‘side deals’ that were hashed out between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency.” Until those presumably nefarious “side deals” are sent, the logic goes, the 60-day review period hasn’t begun, and deal opponents will have more time to sway legislators to their side.

House Republican leaders were discussing shifting strategy with the rank-and-file Wednesday afternoon as the rally was going on. As Politico adds, though, “Whatever course House Republicans choose will have almost no practical impact.” McConnell and Corker have been cool to the idea, as it might lead to Congress never registering its disapproval of the deal at all. The 60-day period will expire on Sept. 17, and the White House will begin implementing the deal.

What the Roskam plan does effectively do, though, is paper over the fact that Congress never could do much to stop this deal with the potent anti-establishment politics that blossomed during the Summer of Trump. Lawmakers who railed against this deal, and now recognize that it’s going through anyway, will transfer the rage of activists like those at Wednesday’s rally toward those familiar spineless, all-talk-no-action, cowardly punching bags, Boehner and McConnell.

And it will work. Not because Boehner and McConnell (and Corker) didn’t make an effort, as they’ll be accused of. The Corker–Cardin framework gave opponents a chance to kill the deal through Congress—a long shot, sure, but better than the alternative, which would have been the deal going through with zero congressional input. But they’re the highest-ranking GOP officials in government right now, and GOP voters unfamiliar with nitpicky federal government procedures will be perfectly willing to blame them for “allowing” this to happen.

“What a lame Congress,” Pat Webb, who traveled from Miami to attend the rally, said about McConnell and Boehner’s inability to put the brakes on this. “It’s got to be stopped.”