Jonathan Chait

The Start Treaty And Republican Path Dependency

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Walter Pincus reports that Republicans overwhelmingly favored the previous Start Treaty before changing their tune on the current one:

"This treaty is a masterstroke. . . . It is shorn of the tortured bench marks, sub-limits, arcane definitions and monitoring provisions that weighed down past arms control treaties," said Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.). "It assumes a degree of trust between nations that are no longer on the precipice of war."

Those were words from Kyl's floor speech on March 6, 2003, in support of ratification of the Moscow Treaty, signed nine months earlier by President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The resolution for ratification passed that day without opposition, 95 to 0 with five senators absent, including Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), today's minority leader. Twenty-four Republicans who voted for that treaty seven years ago are in the Senate today, but not one, save possibly Sen. Richard G. Lugar (Ind.), has indicated he or she will vote for the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), negotiated by President Obama's team. New START has sub-limits, definitions and monitoring provisions.

In fact, Kyl and many of the 23 other senators are critical of elements of New START that they readily accepted or ignored in the agreement they embraced seven years ago.

Some of the GOP's opposition to President Obama reflects genuine ideological differences. Some of it reflects a deliberate strategy to deny him bipartisan accomplishments -- if Republicans refuse to support his agenda, then his agenda by definition will either fail or be partisan.

The political logic is unimpeachable. But there's also a path dependency issue for the GOP. There has been a mutually-reinforcing cycle in which Republican elected officials help convince the base that Obama represents a threat to the very core of American freedom, and the base in turns pushes Republicans to oppose Obama in these terms. But once the base is convinced of this, cooperation with Obama becomes almost impossible. You can't see, "He's a socialist tyrant hoping to enslave us all, but actually this treaty is a pretty reasonable idea." Once you have painted him in such hysterical terms, almost everything he does has to be monstrous. This isn't a "problem" for Republicans except to the extent that they'd like to cooperate with Obama on an issue here or there -- which, of course, is not in their interest to do.

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