The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) public-policy conference in Washington moved into day two with appearances by two senators, each of whom may want to run for president in 2020 or beyond. In doing so, they both told us something about their political skills and political perspective.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) was a pleasant surprise. She sits on neither the Armed Services nor the Foreign Relations Committees and represents a state better known for its population’s Scandinavian heritage and its Olympic curling team than for its Jewish population (which numbers fewer than than 46,000 and is less than one-and-a-half percent of the population). Nevertheless, Klobuchar displayed her knowledge of Israel’s defense needs, and spoke in warm terms about the shared values between the United States and Israel.
The two-term senator cautioned against letting Israel become a partisan issue, stressing Israel’s progressive credentials on refugees, for example. (Keeping progressives in the pro-Israel fold continues to be a major theme at this year’s gathering.) She called the recent Iranian drone incursion a “wake-up call” for the West in addressing the threat from Tehran. She also vigorously defended foreign aid, which the administration wants to slash, citing Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’s admonition that if we “don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition.” She referenced Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), noting their travels together. This may have been an effort to reinforce her bipartisan bona fides, or to signal that she is a friend of AIPAC. She ended with a very warm ovation.
With time, her speaking style has become more relaxed and conversational; she radiates “Minnesota nice.” One wonders, however, whether her message — you “can find common ground but stand your ground” — is where the Democratic Party is right now. Her references to her time as a prosecutor and her robust defense of the Israeli state would play well in a general election, but could she make it through a primary against more left-wing competition? She’s not indicated an interest in running for president — especially in 202o — but, with no obvious front-runner and a crowded field, many politicians will see little downside in giving it a shot, just as Republicans did in 2016.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), with his ramrod-straight posture and wooden speaking style, presented an entirely different image than Klobuchar. He shows no interest in bipartisanship. He reiterated his opposition to the Iran nuclear deal. He acknowledged that simply sitting down with the ayatollahs to renegotiate the deal wasn’t going to work. However, his alternative — just focus on discrete issues (e.g., Tehran’s missile program) — still lacks a logical argument for why Iran, under any circumstances, would want to renegotiate an existing deal that Europe has no stomach for ripping up and that Iran can claim it is in compliance with.
Cotton condescendingly suggested that diplomacy was well and good, but made the argument that it all comes down to hard power. (With the GOP adopting “America First,” it is not clear how his super-muscular national-security rhetoric and his habit of downplaying the risks of military action against Iran and/or North Korea will play.)
Above all, Cotton has become an unmistakable defender of President Trump’s Iran policy. The first-term senator claimed that we are in a much better place regarding Iran since the president understands the threat. Unfortunately, Trump has ceded Syria to Iran and Russia, and has not taken meaningful action on Iran regarding human rights or its missile program. (Cotton did concede that we needed to do more, but unlike less Trump-centric lawmakers, he did not suggest it would be nice to have an Iran policy for starters.) Asked about our international challenges, Cotton cited Russia, briefly mentioning the election (without citing its effort to help one particular candidate or even concede its strategy of undermining Western democracies) and its role in Ukraine. There was zero mention of Trump’s inexplicable refusal to confront Russia (on its war crimes in Syria, for example) or to enact sanctions passed by Congress virtually unanimously.
Cotton plainly is positioning himself as a Trump cheerleader without the full Trump craziness. Unfortunately for him, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) tried that during the 2016 election and came up short. If you want to win over Trump’s base, simply agreeing with every action he takes and avoiding any hint of criticism likely won’t fly.