Michael KreponFanfare for the Common Man

Lyric of the week:

“You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometimes
You just might find, well,
You get what you need”
— The Rolling Stones

Exhale and enjoy. Breathe in deeply. Notice that which can provide sustenance during hard times. Like the creative and idiosyncratic ways that leaves fall to the ground from trees preparing to replenish themselves next spring. Nature is under assault but still provides. And if you are fortunate, like me, living away from urban light, look up to the night sky, alive with stars and the faint impression of the Milky Way.

We have earned our reprieve. Every single vote counted this time around. We have sent our strongman packing, thereby providing an example to others facing longer odds. This is one aspect of American greatness, even when we remain closely divided. Another is that the common man and woman can accomplish uncommon things. At its best, my beloved country allows for meaningful work and second chances. It’s also a place that must address very hard problems with a broken political system.

Arms control doesn’t even merit a mention in President-elect Joe Biden’s “to do” lists. We understand that. But still, we have opportunities for a reprieve and creative accomplishment.

First, the reprieve: Biden and Vladimir Putin can agree to a five-year extension of New START, without going through the Senate’s ratification process. (Putin will need the consent of the Duma but carrying firewood into my house is a heavier lift.) Given how partisan U.S. politics have become, we’ll need a long placeholder, as Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy have taken Jesse Helms’s and Newt Gingrich’s playbook to the next level.

The Capitol Hill wing of the Grand Old Party has replaced governing with posturing. Compromise has become passé, as full-throated opposition rings out over the land via hard right media organs. (The Dems have a corollary problem, but with Biden’s win and losses down-ticket, the lurch to the left has been moderated.) Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer will have their hands full shepherding legislation by simple majorities past vocal Republican naysayers; the Constitutional requirement of two-thirds present and voting for the Senate’s consent to treaty ratification will be a very high hurdle.

Democratic Presidents have found to their chagrin that they are allowed just one bite of the treaty ratification apple. After great exertions and with the help of Republican Leader Howard Baker, Jimmy Carter secured the Senate’s consent to ratify the Panama Canal treaties (two of them, but counts as one bite), only to fail on SALT II. Baker, vying to become the Republican presidential candidate, joined the chorus of strong Republican opposition the second time around.

Bill Clinton succeeded in gaining the Senate’s consent to the Chemical Weapons Convention negotiated entirely during the terms of his predecessors, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. But Clinton, as was his want, didn’t seize the moment. His delays were costly, and he won ratification on his second try. Republican Leader Trent Lott voted yea, even though the Republican Chairmen of the Foreign Relations, Armed Services and Intelligence Committees voted nay. Clinton then failed badly in seeking the Senate’s consent to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Lott and all but four Republican Senators voted nay.

In one way, Barack Obama succeeded where his predecessors did not: He managed to secure a treaty ratification without the support of the Senate Republican Leader, Mitch McConnell. McConnell didn’t demand Party loyalty in this instance. Nonetheless, the ratification of New START was excruciatingly difficult, as it was meant to be. Treaty opponents made it abundantly clear that there would be no second bite of the apple.

If McConnell sets out to deny Biden victories, as he did with Obama, then it will be hard to achieve even one bite of the ratification apple – assuming this can fit within a very heavy legislative agenda for the incoming President. Biden can still accomplish much through other routes, including the budget process and his national security strategy and nuclear posture statements.

How best to use the reprieve of a long New START extension to best advance the prospects for arms control requires hard thought. My sense is that we’ll need something borrowed and something new.

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