A 'Unifier-in-Chief' Is a Democratic Fantasy for Now

(Bloomberg View) -- If American politics were an Aaron Sorkin teleplay, one could imagine the Democrats nominating a unifier in 2020. "Let America Be America Again." Republican voters might disagree with him on health care and immigration, but not on U.S. leadership in the world. That Democratic candidate -- call him or her "Senator Leadership" -- defeats President Collusion. End Scene.   

This is the latest thinking of Barack Obama's foreign policy communicator, Ben Rhodes. Speaking on the podcast of his former colleague Tommy Vietor, Rhodes sketched out how he believed Trump's abdication of America's traditional role in the world created a post-partisan opening.

"I think there can be a sense of renewal of the things that we all care about, like we value alliances, and we want to promote democracy and human rights, and we want to re-engage with the world and we want to reinvigorate diplomacy," he said. "You can see an incoming president really kind of rally the country, the Congress, the government around just a complete reset of 'let's be who we are in the world again, let's be America again around the world' in a way that does not has to be contemptuous of Trump."  

Rhodes is not alone here. William Kristol, the smartest never-Trump Republican, last week floated the prospect of a Mitt Romney-Joe Biden candidacy. "On foreign policy you could imagine a certain center-left, center-right agreement," Kristol said in a National Review podcast. Where's Jed Bartlet when you need him?

Much can change in two years, but if trends continue 2020 will not be a post-partisan moment. Let's start with the obvious. In 2016, Trump was blessed with the perfect general election opponent for a campaign that asked angry voters what they had to lose. His voters chose a boorish amateur over a hyper-qualified insider. When Hillary Clinton made the case that Trump was a sexual predator, Trump showed up at the second debate with the victims of Bill Clinton's sexual predations. Romney-Biden would be a similar gift. Trump could run against the Iraq War-Iran Deal ticket.  

None of this is to say that there is not an opening for the president's opposition. It's true that Trump's vice-signaling on Twitter has eroded American credibility abroad. His deference to dictators is embarrassing. He should also speak plainly about the menace in the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin.

The problem is that the Democrats are in no position to make these arguments. Trump inherited a world unraveled. And his transactional statesmanship is a response to the failures of his predecessor. Obama often spoke of America's many moral obligations in foreign policy, such as the responsibility to protect victims of genocide, but the world did not comply. His words were hollow. See his lecture in 2016 at the United Nations General Assembly on the importance of accepting Syrian refugees. Moments when Obama bore moral witness were not calls to action so much as reminders of American weakness.  

So what went wrong? It goes back to the 2000s. Obama won the election in 2008 because he was the anti-Iraq-war candidate. Obama was willing to meet with the enemies George W. Bush shunned. Never mind that Bush too conducted diplomacy with Iran. The point was that Democrats tried to prevent the wars Republicans desired. It made for good politics and dangerous foreign policy -- like the Iran nuclear deal.

By the time the Iranians were finally pressured to negotiate, they were on a rampage. But Obama and the Democrats went back to their old playbook and sold the deal at home as the alternative to war … a war the Iranians were already waging, and would continue to wage. They ended up defending a bargain that temporarily capped Iran's nuclear program by lifting sanctions on a regime that was enabling Syria's dictator to slaughter and gas his own people.

It fit a pattern. Look at Obama's failed agreement to remove chemical weapons from Syria. After trotting out his secretary of state, John Kerry, in 2013, to compare Syria's dictator to Hitler, Obama lost his nerve and asked Congress to authorize the strikes he promised if the regime used chemical weapons. Russia seized the moment and cut a deal on chemical weapons that managed to let Damascus hold out a reserve of chemical weapons it would use a few years later.

It should be said that the regime has apparently not used chemical weapons since Trump ordered a limited strike on a Syrian airbase last April. (Though there were unconfirmed reports Monday that chemical weapons were used in an attack in Afrin.) Let's hope this restraint continues. But the message of that airstrike is that a little force is preferable to hollow agreements with rogues. Trump's airstrike on Syria was not the first step down the path to a new Iraq war. Rather it was a small effort to restore an international norm against the use of chemical weapons, one that was in tatters by the time Obama left office.

When Rhodes was asked about that airstrike last week, he dismissed it as a moment for pundits to say that Trump was presidential. Fair enough. Much more needs to be done in Syria, and so far Trump has bungled U.S. policy there as well (see NATO ally Turkey's latest attack on Syrian Kurds). But for Rhodes's party to ask voters to let America be America again, it must acknowledge and correct Obama's own abdications of American leadership. Otherwise President Collusion will probably defeat Senator Leadership in 2020, as the world continues to unravel.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.

To contact the author of this story: Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net.

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