Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) conceded yesterday that he’s not altogether comfortable with the rhetorical volume surrounding the debate over the Iran deal. Is McConnell troubled by Ted Cruz’s insistence that the White House is a state-sponsor of terrorism? Maybe the Majority Leader balked at Mike Huckabee’s repulsive Holocaust rhetoric?
Actually, McConnell told reporters, “What is not helpful is rhetoric like the president has been using.”
That’s right, in Republican circles, it’s President Obama whose language has gone too far. At issue were these presidential remarks at American University this week:
“I recognize that resorting to force may be tempting in the face of the rhetoric and behavior that emanates from parts of Iran. It is offensive. It is incendiary. We do take it seriously. But superpowers should not act impulsively in response to taunts, or even provocations that can be addressed short of war. Just because Iranian hardliners chant ‘Death to America’ does not mean that that’s what all Iranians believe.“In fact, it’s those hardliners who are most comfortable with the status quo. It’s those hardliners chanting ‘Death to America’ who have been most opposed to the deal. They’re making common cause with the Republican caucus.”
Listening carefully to the president’s tone, my guess is that the final phrase was ad-libbed, but whether it was in the prepared text or not, it quickly struck a nerve with Republicans. McConnell obviously didn’t appreciate the comment, and it came up in last night’s debate, too.
So, will the White House backtrack after hurting GOP officials’ feelings? So far, not even a little.
The subject came up at yesterday’s press briefing, and White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest made no effort to walk back the president’s comments.
“I think it was a statement of fact,” Earnest said after being asked if Obama’s line was over the top. “That you have in Iran a group of hardliners who are strongly opposed to the deal and advocating for its defeat. And here in the United States you have Republicans in Congress who are advocating against the deal and urging its defeat. And in fact, you saw some of those same Republicans in Congress actually write a letter to the Supreme Leader of Iran advocating for the defeat of the deal, or at least promising to do so. So the fact is they’ve taken the same position.”
Obama himself was pressed on this point by CNN’s Fareed Zakaria yesterday, and once again, the president responded, “What I said is absolutely true, factually…. The truth of the matter is, inside of Iran, the people most opposed to the deal are the Revolutionary Guard, the Quds Force, hardliners who are implacably opposed to any cooperation with the international community.”
The White House’s argument has the benefit of accuracy. Most of the world supports the international nuclear agreement with Iran, including the vast majority of U.S. allies. Congressional Republicans haven’t partnered with Iranian hardliners, but the two groups find themselves on the same side of this fight: they both want the deal to collapse.
GOP officials don’t have to like this fact, but in this case, they’re found themselves with some unsavory bedfellows.