Meet the Bibi Democrats

Wondering how much to criticize the White House.

U.S. Sen. Senator Robert Menendez addresses the media in advance of an event with U.S. President Barack Obama December 15, 2014 at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey.

Photographer: Mark Makela/Getty Images

When Democrats lost the Senate, the party's doves and progressives took one small solace. They would not have New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez to kick around anymore. The Democrat had risen quickly to run the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which previous chairs Joe Biden and John Kerry had done only after accruing years of seniority. Menendez stood far to the right of most Democrats on Cuba (he resolutely favored the embargo) and Iran (he was always ready for sanctions). After the election, more than one Democratic donor told me that the Menendez exit was going to make a Cuba deal easier. And they were right.

That was the context for Menendez's immaculate anger at this week's committee. The Obama administration's Iran negotiators in front of him, Menendez looked down and lectured.

"I have to be honest with you," said Menendez. "The more I hear from the administration and its quotes, the more it sounds like talking points that come straight out of Tehran. And it feeds to the Iranian narrative of victimization when they are the ones with original sin."

 

Menendez's comments were picked up immediately on the right, and led a few Fox News segments. Even out of power, he was demonstrating that the Democratic hawks would not defend the administration's Iran policy. While the administration bristled at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's invitation to speak to Congress -- arranged by the Israeli ambassador and by the Republican speaker of the House, which is not the norm -- some Democrats liked the idea of the visit. They liked it because it was clearly intended to diminish the Obama administration's Iran policy.

“It’d be nice to have open lines of communication between both branches of government," said California Representative Brad Sherman, who's criticized the "left" for insufficient support of Israel. "But it’s always good to have a chance to hear from the prime minister of Israel. The real issue here is, are we going to push Iran to stop stockpiling material for a nuclear weapon? I was quite disappointed when the president announced that the Iranian program had been halted when in fact thousands of their centrifuges are spinning, right now." The confusion over the visit wasn't a problem for him. "Even with our wedding invitations, there was a screw-up or two."

The question for the administration is how many Democrats will speak out this way, versus how many will act out. While sanctions advocates had picked up more Senate votes in the 2014 elections, they were still short of a 67-vote veto-proof majority to override the president's promised veto of a pre-emptive sanctions bill. Even New York Senator Chuck Schumer reacted to the State of the Union by suggesting that the administration's asks for more time with negotiations were legitimate.

"It's a question of timing," said Schumer. "There's overwhelming support to toughen up the sanctions. The question is when. In the past, the president asked for a little time 'til March. That's something people are looking at."

And within the Senate committee, new chairman Bob Corker of Tennessee, a Republican, was gentler on the administration than Menendez was. "I'd support an initial vote on the deal, and I think Congress would support a series of votes as you go on," he said at one point. He didn't support the administration, but he wasn't comparing it to Tehran or goading it over the Netanyahu invite. That was left to the boxed-out members of the Democratic conference.

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