Who could have predicted this?

[Three prominent Republican senators announced they would vote against the treaty. Senators Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Jon Kyl of Arizona, the top two Republican leaders, said on Sunday talk shows that they would oppose it because of concerns about its possible impact on missile defense and other issues.

Neither statement was a surprise, but they reflected the final blow to a months-long effort by the White House to negotiate an accord with Mr. Kyl that would address Republican concerns and lead to approval of the treaty. At Mr. Kyl’s insistence, the White House agreed to a 10-year, $85 billion program to modernize the nation’s nuclear complex, but in the end he still balked at ratification.

At least Lucy can’t pretend at this point like she’s going to set up the field goal. But it’s still stunning how little START actually steps on the feet of any GOP nuclear agenda. It doesn’t limit missile defense, unless you want to convince yourself that Gen. Chilton doesn’t actually know anything about missile defense. It doesn’t take tactical nukes out of Europe. It leaves 1550 nukes intact on either side. It’s more verifiable than its predecessor treaty (and definitely more than the unverifiable situation on the ground now). Then there’s the modernization money that became the cost of doing business for ratification. But it’s Obama’s treaty, and so there’s no political upside to voting for it.

There used to be talk in the White House — spring 2010 feels like forever ago, no? — that New START was a gimme. Its arms cuts are modest, but they needed a) a follow-up treaty to START in any event; b) something to show the Russians that the reset relationship was real and enjoyed deep political support; and c) you’d negotiate a follow-up treaty to address the tactical-weapons question and make far more substantial cuts in the arsenal. And yet there was simply no coherent legislative strategy for pushing the treaty through besides arguing for it on the merits.

I don’t know if there can be a political constituency for arms control. The Nuclear Threat Initiative is trying to build one, and every Beltway reporter who even halfway covers New START gets relentless email drops from pro-treaty organizations (far more than I get from anti-treaty forces). So there’s that. But until it becomes politically perilous for GOP senators to vote against these treaties — at least when Democrats hold the White House — vote against them they will. It’ll take a grassroots effort to make nuclear security a political force. Without one, getting New START will be a barely-if-at-all effort, and a follow-on treaty will be stillborn or DOA.

Spencer Ackerman

Spencer Ackerman

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