In the run-up to the August recess, congressional lawmakers for and against the Iran nuclear deal girded themselves for a potentially bruising, weeks-long break. At the time, the politics surrounding the agreement remained highly volatile as outside groups promised to spend millions on television ads and other lobbying efforts to influence members ahead of a critical September vote on the accord.
Democrats had good reason to be concerned about being put in the cross-hairs over the potentially historic deal. In 2009, with Obamacare in play, angry town halls characterized by heated exchanges between lawmakers and their constituents spawned the Tea Party and cemented conservative opposition to President Obama’s signature healthcare law.
“I think you're going to see over the August recess -- I know I'm going to be having town hall meetings on this Iran deal,” House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) predicted during an interview shortly before Congress adjourned. “I think everybody ought to hear from their constituents about this deal.”
But instead of endless hours of cable news and smartphone footage shot inside local meeting halls, the debate over the agreement has largely played out on the presidential campaign trail, especially on the Republican side.
All 17 GOP contenders have come out against the deal in one way or another, sometimes with inflammatory rhetoric.
“This president's foreign policy is the most feckless in American history. It is so naive that he would trust the Iranians. By doing so, he will take the Israelis and march them to the door of the oven,” former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee said late last month.
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker promised he will “tear up” the pact his first day in the Oval Office, while Republican frontrunner Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) announced they plan to hold a joint event on Capitol Hill sometime next month to protest the agreement.
“It is essentially a protest over the totally incompetent deal with Iran,” Trump told reporters after an event in South Carolina on Thursday. “We’re going to have a tremendous crowd come out.”
On Friday, White House press secretary Josh Earnest labeled the upcoming event a “pro-war rally.”
The agreement’s advocates consider the lack of outrage a win.
“After all their huffing and puffing, the Iran Deal opponents couldn’t blow the Iran deal down. Despite lavishing tens of millions of dollars on ads, right-wing organizers couldn’t produce many protesters at town hall meetings,” according to Joseph Cirincione, the president of the Ploughshares Fund.
He said opposition didn’t erupt as it did in 2009 because the agreement has been backed by national security experts and the Obama administration has “waged a determined effort to win public support.”
Cirincione noted that pro-deal groups such as J Street, Win Without War and MoveOn.org launched their own grassroots effort to bolster the White House’s extensive outreach.
Another possible reason for the absence of an outcry is that congressional Republicans appear to have thrown in the towel on trying to stop the agreement from going into effect.
As of Friday, 30 Democratic senators supported the pact, just four shy of the number the president needs to sustain a promised veto if Congress initially votes to reject the agreement.
Even though two Senate Democrats have come out against the deal, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Foreign Relations Committee chair Bob Corker (R-TN) have admitted the math ultimately favors Obama.
Congress is expected to vote on the accord no later than September 17 but it’s not all smooth sailing ahead for the administration. Republicans could try to strip the deal’s support by attaching “poison pill” amendments that make it politically toxic, such as making its adoption contingent on Iran recognizing the state of Israel.
The GOP could also cook up new legislation designed to keep up the pressure on Tehran or punish Iran economically if there’s the slightest hint it’s not abiding by the accord if and when it goes into effect.
And while the debate over the deal has largely been confined to the presidential-level, Republicans are already working to make it a premier foreign policy issue in House and Senate races next year.
Senate Democrats have the advantage of only defending 10 incumbent seats in 2016, compared with 24 for the GOP. The National Republican Senatorial Committee wants to make the Iran deal a hot topic in key races in Nevada, Illinois, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire, blue-leaning states Democrats need to win in order to have a shot at victory.
“This nuclear deal that threatens our national security and is opposed by a majority of American voters. Any candidate who supports the deal is sending voters a clear message that they will follow Obama’s dangerous stance on national security issues,” according to NRSC spokeswoman Andrea Bozek.
Public support for the Iran deal also remains low.
A CNN/ORC International poll released earlier this month found that 56 percent of Americans believe Congress should vote to reject the deal. A recent Quinnipiac University survey concluded that a majorities in the key swing states of Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania think the agreement makes the world less safe.
For its part, the administration is sticking by its argument that the nuclear accord prevents war.
“The same people making the same arguments against the Iran deal were the people who advocated for us getting into the war in Iraq in 2002 and 2003,” Earnest said, referring to an upcoming speech by former Vice President Dick Cheney on the agreement.
“The fault lines of this debate should be familiar to anybody who has been covering American politics for the past 12 or 13 years,” he added.