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.