The Bibi Speech Backfire: Rating the Expensive (and Unsuccessful) Lobbying Campaigns

For all of the drama that surrounded it, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Tuesday speech to Congress had one goal: Convincing Congress to scrap the Obama administration’s deal with Iran. Just as British Prime Minister David Cameron had lobbied senators to leave space for negotiators, Netanyahu strongly suggested that it was okay to vote for legislation that blew up the deal by instituting sanctions.

“We’re being told that the only alternative to this bad deal is war,” Netanyahu told his audience. “That’s just not true. The alternative to this bad deal is a much better deal.”

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Right after the speech, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced that there’d be a May 10 vote on legislation from Tennessee Senator Bob Corker and New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez, which would have given Congress power of approval over any deal. Today, after most senators had fled Washington’s driving snows, the vote was delayed.

Bloomberg’s Kate Hunter and Jim Rowley report that Corker is spinning this as a victory. “The strongest signal we can send to the U.S. negotiators is having a veto-proof majority in support of Congress weighing in on any final nuclear deal with Iran,” said the senator.

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That would require Corker and Menendez to pull 13 Democrats on board with them. In conversations this week, the senators who had been skeptical about joining were made no less skeptical by Netanyahu’s address.

“I didn’t hear any real credible alternative from this regarding negotiations,” said Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy, a young Democrat who has carved out a leading role on foreign policy. “If you’re going to come before the Congress, be that critical of a United States president, that probably behooves you to flesh out a clear alternative to what the president of your host country is proposing.”

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Other Democrats were warmer to Netanyahu, but just 48 hours after the fireworks ended, it’s clear that the speech did not move votes Corker’s or Menendez’s way—or towards Illinois Senator Mark Kirk, the main sponsor of the main sanctions bill. The furor over the speech helped polarize the Senate. The regularly scheduled AIPAC lobbying trips to the Capitol, which followed the speech, had done as intended with the waverers. Yet Democratic aides say that the Republican decision to move up the vote—so that it would pre-empt the final Iran deal—undid all the work of the pro-Netanyahu effort. There are, they say, simply too many Democrats who don’t want to undercut the president.

Into this breech has swarmed a few public lobbying campaigns that, on the surface, have moved absolutely nobody. The newest pressure is coming from the American Security Initiative, a 501(c)(4) founded by former senators Evan Bayh, Saxby Chambliss, and Norm Coleman. Their ad, “Special Delivery,” is the start of a half-million dollar ad buy which proves that you can shake enough pockets to get a sub-24 video on the air. Voice by Netanyahu itself, the ad is banking on the desire of senators to stay on the right side of Israel’s PM. This hit airwaves just as the problems with that premise became obvious.

Who is this meant to pressure? The only Democrats facing 2016 Senate re-elections in purple-ish states are Colorado’s Michael Bennet and Nevada’s Harry Reid. Bennet was a co-sponsor of Melendez-Kirk; Reid not going to be moved by anything like this.

More daring, if even less effective, is the Emergency Committee for Israel’s spot “Where’s Hillary?” It was launched around the time that Bill Kristol suggested that Hillary Clinton could create some political space for herself by endorsing the Netanyahu speech. No surprise there; the ECI was started by Kristol.

Clinton never responded, and by the evening of the speech, the scandal over her State-era emails had taken over her news cycle. That left the Republican Jewish Coalition’s “Stand Up to Iran” video—not a TV ad, but part of an RJC pressure campaign—as the last and most direct appeal for senators to buck the president.

Democrats haven’t reacted to any of this. Republicans are entering the next week skeptical that the other side will rally and break with the president. This is what a full-court press looks like, and the last few Democrats needed to get a stricter bill through have not responded as the lobbyists hoped.

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