President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the Iran nuclear deal this week, scrapping one of President Barack Obama’s chief foreign-policy accomplishments. Obama broke his usual silence and called it a “serious mistake,” and congressional Democrats excoriated Trump for making an armed confrontation with Iran more likely. But sitting awkwardly below that outrage is the fact that some of the party’s top elected foreign-policy minds voted against the Iran deal when it came before the Senate in 2015.
Senator Ben Cardin is a prime example: As the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Cardin cast a “no” vote and wrote a Washington Post op-ed that criticized the deal in the same terms the Trump administration now uses, writing that it “legitimizes Iran’s nuclear program.” He arguably did more than any other Democrat to discredit the accord.
For Cardin, taking the more bellicose stand is nothing new. “He’s one of the most hawkish Democrats on foreign policy at a time when the progressive wing of the party is very much in ascendance,” one Democratic Senate aide said. With a reelection bid looming this fall in one of the most liberal states in the country, will Cardin pay the price for his increasingly out-of-touch foreign-policy views? While it’s not at all likely any of his opponents can beat him, Cardin clearly appears to be feeling the heat ahead of his June 26 primary.
Once Trump signaled his intention to exit the Iran deal, Cardin flipped his position and urged Trump to keep the agreement and emphasized that Tehran is honoring its commitments. This week, Cardin said exiting the pact “will isolate America, and I think that is not in our national-security interest.”
But Capitol Hill Democrats have noted a political expediency to this shift. “More than anything, I think this was Cardin reading where the party is,” said the Senate aide. “His behavior on the Iran deal has really shown that he’s listening to where the progressive base is and where the Democratic Party base is, because Democrats are firm in their support of the Iran agreement.”
Cardin’s positions on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute are particularly unpopular among many progressive activists. Last year, Cardin authored legislation that would criminalize certain participation in boycotts of Israel and the settlements. The Israel Anti-Boycott Act, which the American Civil Liberties Union deemed unconstitutional, has struggled to gain traction with the majority of Democrats and liberal groups, who oppose it for impinging on Americans’ speech rights. Even for those who disdain the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign, like Senator Cory Booker (who’s called it an “anti-Jewish movement”), Cardin’s bill is too extreme to support, and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand rescinded her co-sponsorship of the measure.
Cardin also introduced a Senate resolution last year condemning the Obama administration for allowing passage of a UN Security Council resolution that demanded Israel stop expanding West Bank settlements.
For years, postures such as these have meant Cardin was a staunch ally of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the highly powerful DC lobby group that advocates the Israeli government’s positions in Washington.
But this year, Cardin also appeared at a conference thrown by J Street, a group that essentially aims to counter AIPAC and present an alternative form of pro-Israel advocacy that opposes Israeli policies that harm the possibility of a two-state solution. In his speech, Cardin even took aim at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, denouncing him for assailing the Iran deal before Congress and threatening to deport African asylum seekers in Israel, which he likened to Trump’s ban on refugees from Muslim-majority countries. Opposing such political machinations, Cardin said, stemmed from “a responsibility to speak out against the policies of Israel or the United States that are not consistent with our Jewish and democratic values.”
In part, Cardin’s appearance at the J Street confab was a simple matter of a senator recalibrating his relatively unpopular foreign-policy views in an election year, or at least giving the appearance of recalibrating them. But J Street has also undergone its own transformation in the Trump era to some extent—and one that likely made it more palatable to Cardin.
J Street has broadened its exclusive focus on Middle East policy into more of an umbrella “resistance” group with an anti-Trump bent. (Jewish opposition to Trump is exceedingly high—a poll last year found that 77 percent of American Jews disapproved of him.) Two recurring themes at this year’s conference were the organization’s opposition to Trump’s immigration policies, and his appointments of Mike Pompeo as secretary of state and John Bolton as national security adviser, both of whom have long-standing ties to anti-Muslim groups.
AIPAC’s efficacy is due in large part to its singular focus on US-Israel relations, and some observers worry that J Street is weakening its hand by expanding its platform and inviting a figure like Cardin to give a speech at its main event. “That makes J Street less effective,” said one Democratic strategist who frequently works on US-Israel issues. “A true J Street should be a hostile place for someone like Ben Cardin. If you really are a single-issue organization like AIPAC or the NRA, somebody who not only voted against but led the effort against their signature policy issue would not be welcomed.” Indeed, Cardin dedicated a fair amount of his speech to matters outside the realm of Middle East policy.
Cardin isn’t exactly facing a competitive primary—the race garnered brief national attention when Chelsea Manning declared her candidacy, but she does not appear to be running a real Senate campaign in any meaningful sense. And Cardin remains popular anyhow. “Some people have individual-vote issues with Cardin, but he’s in good standing with all the core constituencies,” said John Willis, a University of Baltimore politics professor and Maryland’s secretary of state from 1995 to 2003.
But there is one candidate who wants to put Cardin’s Middle East record on the ballot: Longtime political activist and University of Maryland philosophy professor Jerome Segal is running on that single issue.
Segal said he has a broader purpose in mind—to change the reality in Washington so that lawmakers suffer a political cost for reflexively siding with AIPAC. “I don’t even have to beat Cardin,” he said. “I just have to beat him up. Then I’ll introduce a totally different calculus. It would say to Democrats on the Hill: There’s a price for jumping whenever AIPAC tells you to jump.”
That’s been Segal’s mission since 1989, when he founded the Jewish Peace Lobby, which advocates a two-state solution. “It was J Street before there was a J Street,” said Segal, who gained notoriety in 1987 when he met with former Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat to create a diplomatic channel for negotiations with Israel, and later inspired the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Declaration of Independence in 1988. For those efforts, the Palestinian Al-Quds newspaper endorsed his candidacy, the first time it has ever thrown its support behind a US Senate candidate.
Segal is now trying to tap into the momentum of anger over the nation’s gun-violence epidemic to link the National Rifle Association’s and AIPAC’s strangleholds on Congress. “They’re two of the most powerful lobbies in Washington,” he said. “They strike terror into the hearts of elected officials all throughout the country. People check their consciences and their minds to accommodate them.”
But Segal, a pancreatic-cancer survivor, wants to change that. “People like Cardin don’t have to weigh the downside to supporting AIPAC,” he said. “I want to be the downside.”
After some lackluster fund-raising, Segal recently injected $1.3 million into his campaign to use on television advertising in the three weeks before the election on June 26. (He’d already spent $74,000 on the race.) Few people in Maryland politics think Segal can win, but an aggressive television presence could force some more scrutiny on Cardin’s foreign-policy views. And with former NAACP chair Ben Jealous running for Maryland governor, potentially galvanizing the state’s most progressive constituencies, Segal could collect some support from an ideological base bent on challenging the status quo.
But another obstacle Segal faces is himself. Known for his irascible nature, the veteran peace activist hasn’t effectively built a coalition of allies or real campaign infrastructure. He’s also gotten into testy, self-destructive exchanges with progressive groups whose support he wants—and with reporters he feels should be covering Cardin more critically. He recently sent a scathing e-mail to a reporter who wrote about Cardin’s J Street speech—with almost 30 other reporters copied—accusing him of not being “a competent professional” and of being “lacking” as a human being.
Segal was also ejected from the J Street conference after a conflagration with the group’s staff.
Such tactics, Willis warned, diminish the whole point of Segal’s bid. “The issue gets lost in the manner in which he delivers the message,” he said. “And so the underlying message loses its potency.”
If Cardin is reelected, which is overwhelmingly likely, he will remain one of the top Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee—maybe even helping the party wield majority control, if the blue wave crests that high. So the critical question will be: How much has he really moderated his foreign-policy views, if at all? He has offered some signs that aren’t too promising. Tellingly, Cardin’s only mention of settlements in his J Street speech was in reference to the United States’ long-standing position that they are “unhelpful” to the peace process. Notably, he didn’t say that he sees settlements as detrimental to the emergence of a Palestinian state and the long-term survivability of Israel as a Jewish-democratic state.
Cardin will likely remain a key player in US foreign policy toward Israel, and no other country can pressure both sides to make the choices necessary for a painful compromise. While there has never been any domestic drawback to using that leverage on the Palestinians, there has always been a high price to pay for any American leader who decides to exert pressure on Israel. George H.W. Bush felt that discord when he delayed loan guarantees to Israel so that it would roll back its settlement building and enter peace negotiations. He described himself amid that imbroglio as “one lonely little guy” going up against “1,000 lobbyists on the Hill.”
Despite Cardin’s recent overtures, there remains a glaring truth: If that were to happen today, President Bush might be a little less lonely. He’d at least have J Street. But Cardin would probably still be with those 1,000 lobbyists.