by Kingston Reif
On February 2, President Obama officially ratified the New START treaty in a low-key signing ceremony at the White House. The eight month-long campaign to win the Senate’s approval of the treaty, however, was anything but low-key. It was a knock down, drag out fight, the outcome of which was in doubt until the very end.
The enormity of the achievement should not be taken for granted.
Sure, New START had a lot of things going for it. Substantively it was a very modest treaty and enjoyed the support of our entire military leadership and just about every national security expert on the planet. Fifty six Democratic and two independent Senators were locks to support it, meaning the administration needed to win nine Republican votes. And the treaty had the strong backing of a President deeply committed to nuclear risk reduction.
But the treaty faced enormous obstacles, the most significant being a political environment defined by extreme partisanship. In the end, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Whip Jon Kyl opposed the treaty. So too did John McCain and Lindsay Graham, both considered to be moderate Republican leaders on defense policy. No previous arms control agreement has ever been approved under such circumstances.
Below I’ve tried to identify some of the key factors that pushed New START across the finish line. I’ve divided them into four levels of analysis: the administration, the Senate, the media, and NGO and grassroots. The list is not exhaustive, nor does it seek to identify lessons learned, although there are many, both positive and negative.
In general, the administration and its allies in the Senate kept New START on the path to approval by painstakingly working to build a bipartisan majority, rather than by humiliating or shaming undecided Republican Senators. Much to the chagrin of some treaty supporters, this required negotiation, compromise, and logrolling. Equally important, the administration called on key military leaders and former Republican officials to publicly and privately stress the national security merits of the treaty and its importance for U.S. leadership. It capitalized on the other side’s mistakes. And it benefited from some luck. That is how New START was won.
Key Factors in New START’s Success
- The administration’s aggressive outreach (led by Vice President Biden) to individual undecided GOP senators (including regular contact from high level administration and military officials and retired validators). The Senate is all about relationships; Vice President Biden and Secretary of State Clinton leaned heavily on a number of their former Republican Senate colleagues to support the treaty. The administration also displayed remarkable unity and coordination. Secretary of Defense Gates and Secretary of State Clinton worked extremely well together. Brian McKeon in the Vice President’s office ably quarterbacked the entire administration ratification effort. It truly was a “team of collaborators.”
- Consistent, persistent, and vocal support from (1) active duty and retired military officials (2) intelligence community officials, and (3) retired high-level government and national security officials from both parties. This provided undecided GOP Senators with the cover to support the treaty despite the fact that the GOP leadership opposed it.
- The administration’s good faith bargaining with Senator Kyl on modernization. Senator Kyl was not the only object of the administration’s strategy on modernization (the nuclear laboratory directors and key military leaders were also targets). But by making Kyl a central part of its ratification plan for so long, the administration satisfied every conceivable GOP concern and made it easier to peel off individual Senators (especially Senators Corker and Alexander) when Kyl couldn’t get to yes.
- The President’s determination to push ahead despite Kyl’s Nov. 15 “there’s not enough time” statement. When Kyl walked away from the treaty, the administration didn’t overreact; it decided to push ahead with a vote without Kyl’s support, even though they had no assurance that they could win the necessary votes.
- President Obama’s endgame letters on modernization and missile defense which assuaged, at least rhetorically, some GOP Senators’ concerns.
- Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Kerry’s leadership, patience and collegial dealings with Senators Kyl, Corker, and others in the Committee and during the floor debate created the sense that the process was fair and that no one was disrespected. Chairman Kerry deserves credit for his handling of the Committee’s twelve hearings on New START, which included more Republican than Democratic witnesses, nearly all of whom supported the treaty. In addition, Senator Kerry’s decision to delay the Committee vote until September was crucial in winning the support of Republican Committee Members Corker and Isakson.
- Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Lugar’s leadership was just as critical. His early support made it difficult to cast New START as a partisan issue, and he often pushed back against the arguments of his party’s leadership. This made him a rallying figure for undecided GOP Senators.
- Senator Corker’s work with Senator Lugar on the SFRC resolution of ratification, which led to a resounding 14-4 vote in Committee. The fact that the resolution was written by Republicans made it easier for Senators Corker and Isakson to support the treaty in committee and for other GOP Senators to support it on the floor. The bipartisan Committee vote provided a big momentum boost without which the treaty may have died.
- Majority Leader Reid’s determination to stay in session as long as it took to finish New START.
- Democratic Senators Casey, Shaheen, and Franken regularly spoke out in support of the treaty at key points and privately encouraged the Democratic leadership to take up the treaty before the close of the 111th Congress.
- Minority leader McConnell’s decision not to whip Republican votes against the treaty as he did on the Omnibus Appropriations Bill. McConnell’s two priorities for the lame duck were securing an extension of the Bush tax cuts and killing the Omnibus bill. Having achieved these two objectives, McConnell was unwilling to go all-out on New START, especially given that the administration and supporters had made the treaty a referendum on the seriousness of the Republican Party. Thus, though McConnell opposed the treaty, it seems he realized that Senate approval was ultimately inevitable and wanted it off the Senate calendar.
- The failure of the Omnibus Appropriations bill and the GOP filibuster of the Defense Authorization Bill (which initially included repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell) freed up roughly two weeks of valuable time during the lame duck to consider New START.
- Print media stories and newspaper editorials overwhelming framed the treaty as a national security imperative.Favorable newspaper editorials and op-eds in the home states of undecided GOP Senators provided them with additional space to support the treaty.
- The Treaty never became a political issue outside of Washington, DC (as opposed to within the Senate), so Republican Senators were largely free to vote as they pleased.
NGO and Grassroots-Level
- In-state grassroots activism, encouragement, and pressure (including from religious groups) in key states such as Tennessee and Maine served as a counterweight to right-wing efforts to demonize the treaty and provided encouragement to both supportive and undecided Senators.
- NGOs played a key role in generating news about the importance of the treaty, prodding the administration to pursue an aggressive lobbying and communications campaign in support of the treaty, coordinating grassroots efforts, organizing bipartisan military and national security validators, and communicating a message of bullishness and optimism about the treaty’s prospects to the media, Senate allies, and the administration.