Conservatives continually press the Republican leadership to fight battles that they cannot win. This is a natural instinct, and many progressives continually urged President Obama to fight harder for things that would never happen or encouraged him to pursue things that would amount to Pyrrhic victories, at best. However, perhaps even to a fault, the president almost never wages a fight he knows he cannot win. The only major exception I can think of was the effort to pass modest gun violence control legislation in the wake of twenty first-graders getting gunned down in their classrooms in Connecticut. The magnitude of the tragedy overcame his usual reticence about doing politics to score points or raise money, so he waged an unwinnable fight on the hope that moral decency would win out for once.

The Republican leadership, however, almost always agrees to make an effort regardless of its prospects. They rationalize this as something that conservatives are owed or they say that the conservatives won’t listen to reason but they’ll have to live with actual results when they see them. So, they come up with these schemes that allow them to stage a fight (and fundraise!) that they are guaranteed to lose. That’s what these government shutdowns really are. And that’s what the vote about the Iran nuclear deal really was.

When the defeat inevitably comes, it’s almost amusing to watch the conservatives scurry around like a bunch of ants who have had their nest disturbed.

“This was something with the Iran deal, the fact that it didn’t get debated, it didn’t get voted on — there’s a lot of people that are very, very upset about this,” said Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.) in an interview on Tuesday, a day after he sent a letter asking McConnell to change the Senate’s [filibuster] rules…

…“Because of the dysfunction, because of the Iran deal … [which] probably was the tipping point, [there’s a sense] that [Congress] just doesn’t work,” said Buchanan. “That’s the general feeling of the majority of Americans today.

“That’s why you see outsiders with 51 percent of the vote in terms of Republicans on our side,” he added, referring to the recent surge of businessman Donald Trump and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson in the GOP presidential race.

Rep. Vern Buchanan makes an astute point about why conservatives are backing political outsiders in the presidential race, but he seemingly doesn’t realize that he’s repeating the same mistake that caused this problem.

What Buchanan is doing is petitioning Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to use the nuclear option to allow debate and a vote on disapproving the P5+1 nuclear deal with Iran. But, even if McConnell agreed to make this change in the Senate rules, the president would just veto the bill, the nuclear deal would go on as planned, and the conservative base would taste another defeat.

What’s bothering them is getting defeated over and over and over again. That’s what is making them turn to different leadership because why wouldn’t they when their leaders make the Washington Generals look competitive?

So, Rep. Buchanan thinks he can solve this problem by getting a small victory (a congressional rebuke of the deal) even if the effort has no real long-term effect and does not one thing to alter the arrangement with Iran.

This is a mistake. It’s one of those Pyrrhic victories that feels good at the time but just sets you up for a meaningful defeat later on. For opponents of the deal with Iran, the only possible victory is to derail the plan. But things were set up with Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker of Tennessee to guarantee that the deal would go through. Sen. Corker absolutely knew this at the time that he crafted the language of the bill, but here’s what he told conservatives:

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said Monday [April 13th, 2015] he’s confident his bill to restrict President Barack Obama’s ability to reach a nuclear agreement with Iran can survive a threatened presidential veto.

“Look, I don’t ever want to overcommit and under-deliver,” Corker told reporters Monday evening. “We are moving in a very positive direction, and we’ve worked through some issues that I think have given me a lot of hope. … I think that this weekend has been very productive.”

Corker’s bill, scheduled for markup in the Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday afternoon, would grant Congress the final vote on any nuclear agreement the U.S. and its five negotiating partners reach with Iran. Congress would have two months to review the deal, and during that time the president would be prevented from easing economic sanctions on Iran.

“It’s really a resolution of disapproval,” Corker said of the nuclear talks, which face a June 30 deadline.

This was all theater. Corker set it up so only a two-thirds majority of the Senate could stop the deal. But to sell this to the conservatives, he made it out like the administration was super-worried about his bill.

When asked if he thought Obama would be more likely to accept a version of the bill with modifications offered by Democrats, Corker said he hadn’t discussed the legislation with the president.

“I know there’s been a lot of reporting about the president and calling and all that, but the president — I don’t normally repeat conversations, in fact I never do — but the president and I did not talk about one iota of this bill,” Corker said.

“They shared with me how opposed they were to it, and how they felt like it took away presidential prerogative, and how they felt like it would hurt the negotiations — all of which I disagree with,” Corker continued, referring to Obama administration officials who have been conducting Iran briefings with lawmakers.

Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to brief senators Tuesday morning, before the markup.

“I don’t think he probably wants to talk about this piece of legislation tomorrow,” Corker said. “I think he’s coming up to sell the deal.”

So, the president opposed him and Secretary of State John Kerry didn’t want to discuss the bill, so it must be something that would somehow be a hurdle to a deal, right?

Actually, though, it smoothed the way to the deal. It even, ultimately, allowed the deal to go through without a vote or much debate in the Senate. That was the design, and the only bone that Corker actually got was that he could theoretically derail the deal if he could convince more than 10 Democrats to override the president’s veto.

Corker wasn’t looking to sell conservatives out, exactly. He was dealing with reality. But all he accomplished was to raise expectations (and money) from the conservative base which he provided with a false sense of agency and hope.

And Buchanan is doing the same thing right now in trying to get McConnell to keep fighting a battle that has already been lost and never could have been won.

What’s needed is actual leadership which is able to do two things that the current Republican Party cannot do. First, they need to learn to work with the president rather than oppose him reflexively. And, more important, they need to screw up the courage to tell their base to go pound sand when they make unreasonable demands that cannot be met. Humoring them is just leading them on. It’s like the girl who won’t just come out and tell the boy that he has no chance. In the long run, her course is the crueler one and the one that will do more lasting damage to the boy’s psyche.

What winds up happening is that the Republican leadership doesn’t level with their base and doesn’t tell them to back off, and so they keep trying to find new ways to appease them and give the appearance that they’re still fighting for all they’re worth.

It doesn’t work.

It makes things worse.

It makes the base angrier and more disillusioned and unhappier with Congress and the political process.

This, in turn, makes it seem even more imperative to wage a pointless fight the next time around, which creates a recurring nightmare of endless failure.

And this distorts everything.

To see how, just survey the opinions about the nuclear deal among Republicans who no longer or never did hold elective office. They are generally much more supportive of the deal and there is certainly nothing like uniform opposition to it. It’s only among the people who must face these riled up conservative voters that the deal is going to cause a nuclear armageddon in Bumfuck, Arkansas.

And so we get this:

“The Senate leader needs to look at filibusters to be just that — filibusters where people have to stand and talk,” Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), who has repeatedly served as a thorn in GOP leaders’ side, said in a recent interview with The Hill.

“Most of us watched Jimmy Stewart [in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”] and that was our idea of what a filibuster was, not casting a vote and seeing if you get to 60 votes and going out and having a steak.”

Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it?

That’s the problem.

[Cross-posted at Progress Pond]

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at