Classic Messaging Fail

November 18, 2010 6:56 a.m.

If you read TPM and keep up on politics, you know that the new START Treaty is up for ratification before the Senate. And the administration is keen to have it ratified during this lame duck session of Congress. Furthermore, if you’re your average TPM reader you probably know that in some broad sense it’s a good thing and important to pass and that Senate Republicans, for a mix of political calculations and policy disagreements, are refusing to let it get voted on.

But do you actually have any idea what it does or why it’s important to get it passed other than a vague sense that arms control treaties are a good thing and that if the administration thought it was important it must be? I’ve heard the administration talking about it but I must confess this strikes me as a classic messaging fail in which there’s been no real public campaign — certainly not effective public campaign — to muscle the opponents of the treaty into allowing passage?Frankly, I’m reasonably informed on these things. But before writing this post I rang up Greg Thielmann at the Arms Control Association just to make sure I knew what was going on. Because even though I have no doubt that if I were following the issue closely and attending the various briefings I’d know all the details, I’m not, so I don’t. And if the key details are only loosely getting through to me who’s a degenerate news junkie, covers news as a profession and is reasonably interested in the topic itself, you can be pretty sure the public at large is barely hearing anything.

Have you heard this? Russia still has a massive strategic nuclear arsenal with pretty much the exclusive goal of being able to devastate the United States and kill pretty much all of us. For 15 years we had pretty robust right to inspect their arsenal many times a year, make sure they only had as many as they were allowed under our treaties and actually get up on the delivery missiles themselves and look at the payloads? Now we don’t. In fact, we haven’t since December 5th of last year. At first that wasn’t that big a deal. Not much can happen in a few weeks or few months. But now it’s been almost a year. So all that trust but verify stuff Ronald Reagan was so into? Well, now we can’t verify. And for as much as you’re worried about some Muslim guy blowing up a plane and killing a few hundred people, these are weapons designed to kill hundreds of millions of people. Do you feel more secure knowing we’re just taking everything on faith from the Russians? Or that our intelligence on their missile designs and practices is growing older by the day?

There are also secondary arguments — namely that there’s no way to effective pressure the Iranians on their nuclear program without the assistance of the Russians. And this weakens the relationship with the Russian so by definition it undermines us on that front too. But again, the core issue is that the US is much more secure being able to inspect the Russian strategic missile force than not.

Have you heard the argument made this way? Anywhere? My point is not that pressing this point would suddenly get everyone to vote for the treaty. But it’s folly to assume they’re going to budge if you’re not applying any real pressure, with an actual argument, in the political context. This is not unrelated to the way Democrats lost the public argument on Health Care Reform while they spent almost a year in a Capitol Hill debate about the innards of health care policy and how to leverage two or three Republicans senators. It’s a broader problem. But for right now, can the White House start making a public case on this? Start raising the temperature at least a touch on the opponents?

And coming out and saying this is very important for our national security and it’s called START really doesn’t cut it.

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