Update: Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) flipped on Pompeo and voted to confirm him, meaning Pompeo won the support of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The below post has been updated.
Mike Pompeo will be confirmed as the next secretary of state — but not before what looked to be a potentially embarrassing loss in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Monday.
And the biggest casualty of all this may be our political discourse.
With Pompeo in some peril, the White House and Republicans deployed the nuclear option of talking points: questioning their opponents’ patriotism.
“Look, at some point, Democrats have to decide whether they love this country more than they hate this president,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Monday morning on Fox News.
Shortly thereafter, the National Republican Senatorial Committee issued a news release titled “Party before country?” It said that “Democrats are taking ‘party before country’ to a new level” and suggested that their votes against Pompeo translated to “national security consequences be damned.”
Sanders employed a version of her quote above in January during the immigration debate. A week later, she said it again of Democrats who failed to applaud during Trump’s State of the Union address. Trump at the time suggested that those Democrats might be guilty of treason, which the White House clarified was just a joke. But Trump also said, with nary a hint of humor, that Democrats “certainly didn’t seem to love our country very much.”
Trump’s campaign then released an ad calling the Democrats’ behavior “disgraceful” and saying they were “disrespecting our country.”
The strategy is apparent. Republicans are arguing that too much is at stake internationally for Pompeo’s nomination to be delayed or for him to enter the world stage as damaged goods. And they may have a point that Democrats’ opposition carries with it some real downsides. They also may have a point that politics have seeped into things they perhaps shouldn’t and that confirmations of nominees such as Pompeo used to be forgone conclusions. (Though Democrats, it bears emphasizing, hardly have a monopoly on such behavior.)
But this certainly represents a coarsening of our political rhetoric. The GOP’s argument here doesn’t allow for principled objections to Pompeo’s nomination. This argument deems concerns over his comments about Muslims and gay people as invalid. The logical extension of this talking point is that no secretary of state nominee should ever be opposed for confirmation, no matter his or her qualifications, because it could hurt national security.
It’s worth noting that the NRSC’s patriotism critique initially included one of its own, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who had said repeatedly that he opposed Pompeo's nomination. But Monday afternoon, Paul reversed course and said he would support Pompeo, giving him majority support in the committee.
This kind of argument has seeped into national security and foreign policy decisions before. Back when Democrats opposed the Iraq War, some cast that as being opposed to the troops or rooting for failure. The angry takedown by then-Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.) of his own party at the 2004 Republican National Convention sounded a lot like what the White House is saying today:
While young Americans are dying in the sands of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan, our nation is being torn apart and made weaker because of the Democrats’ manic obsession to bring down our commander in chief. Motivated more by partisan politics than by national security, today’s Democratic leaders see America as an occupier, not a liberator. In their warped way of thinking, America is the problem, not the solution.
But comments from the official GOP and the White House were more veiled. As Brendan Nyhan catalogued, President George W. Bush called opponents of the war “defeatists” and contrasted them with a “loyal opposition.” Karl Rove questioned critics of Guantanamo Bay conditions by saying that they put troops in danger and that “no more needs to be said about the motives of liberals.” The chairman of the Republican National Committee said, “Democrat leaders never miss an opportunity to put politics before our nation’s security.”
It’s one thing to accuse the other side of playing politics on very serious matters and harming national security; it’s another to question whether they are acting in the interests of their country and how much they love their country. What these voices hinted at in the mid-2000s is now being said in much blunter terms — and seems to be coming up with a regularity that suggests that it will be a fixture going forward.
And that may be the most lasting impact of the now-momentary drama over Pompeo’s nomination. In the context of a norm-busting Trump era that has redefined the rules of political engagement, it may seem like a small bridge to have crossed. But it’s significant nonetheless.