The Cotton Doctrine is Unsustainable

Nick Clyde, JHU:

Since Tom Cotton and 46 other Republican Senators signed an open letter to the Iranian leadership last week claiming that any agreements on their nuclear policy would be nullified by the next president, commentators have denounced the move as a blunder. Some have even called it illegal and unconstitutional. Although a few of the Senators have since backed down, Cotton claims he has “no regrets” and continues to defend the letter. While the letter certainly was a political misstep for the GOP, it also reveals something sinister about the state of our political system. The simple fact that Americans have elected officials to the Senate who are willing to undermine a potential diplomatic agreement is extraordinary and worrying. Unfortunately, the obstruction doesn’t stop with foreign policy. February 3rd marked the 56th time that the House attempted to repeal President Obama’s healthcare reform. The Alabama Supreme Court recently   a federal district court ruling, prolonging the ban on same-sex marriage in that state. And although Mitch McConnell promised that there would not be another government shutdown after the 16-day closure in 2013, it nearly happened again only a year later. It seems that the political process in this country has devolved into making any and every attempt to undermine the opposition, even if that means sacrificing governing and real progress.

Doyle McManus of the Los Angeles Times writes that “the idea that any president’s agreements are good only until the next president shows up” might be called the “Cotton Doctrine,” and that any Republican president ought not confirm such a doctrine. But the Cotton Doctrine is not limited to executive foreign policy agreements; it extends to every branch and level of our government. It won’t be up to the next Republican president to confirm or deny it.  ; even Iran’s Supreme Leader says that Cotton’s letter is “a sign of a decline in political ethics and the destruction of the American establishment from within.” Majority rule used to carry the force of law; now, like a child throwing a temper tantrum, every dissenting minority tries to find some way to get what they want. The authority with which the state once governed has been deeply undermined. If every law, policy, and treaty that the government attempts to implement is bound to be attacked, how will society continue to function?

The Cotton Doctrine doesn’t take its name from the first partisan action in history to impede progress; far from it. Cotton’s letter is just the most blatant among a recent string of sectarian moves made by Republicans. Nevertheless, the history of partisanship goes back even further than recent political memory. The government was shut down for three weeks under Clinton, and on eight separate occasions under Reagan. The Democrats aren’t innocent when it comes to partisanship, either. Some have claimed that Democrats undermined both the Reagan and Bush administrations. What is clear is that politics is becoming less about compromise and more and more about political maneuvering.

Boston College history professor Heather Cox Richardson has argued that America has gone through cycles of greater and lesser partisanship throughout our history. She claims that “partisanship and compromise are both deeply imbedded in the American political tradition.” In the past, growing partisanship and extremism had been overcome by up and coming politicians who promise to fix the broken political system through compromise resulting in action. Two of these politicians were Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt. But, if we are indeed in another cyclical upswing of partisanship, who will be the next champion of compromise? Many hoped that Obama would be that champion, but it seems we’ve only gotten more of the same under his administration. One can question whether the consolidation of corporate personhood and unlimited campaign funding is even conducive to compromise. When powerful oligarchs like Michael Bloomberg and the Koch brothers spend millions to get their favorite policies implemented, compromise seems unlikely.

One thing is certain: the Cotton Doctrine is unsustainable. The more each party attempts to sabotage the efforts of the other, the more crippled our government will become. The Cotton Doctrine could be a sign of collapse. We are already seeing the signs. The nation’s infrastructure is crumbling.   The most recent Congress only narrowly avoided the title of “least productive Congress in history,” while state legislatures are busy churning out laws tailored to special interests, largely ignored. Unless another Roosevelt comes along to champion massive compromise and restructuring, it’s only going to get worse.

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