The candidates know they can get mileage out of the treaty. For one thing, it just sounds silly. Who wants to submit to something called the Law of the Sea Treaty? If you violate it, do they make you walk the plank? (Also note the acronym: LOST.)
But more to the point, it gives them an opportunity to rail against international law. Ronald Reagan rejected the treaty in 1982 because of a provision about mineral mining, but since then the United States has followed the treaty in practice (minus the mining part). President Clinton signed it, but the Republican Congress didn't pass it. President Bush currently supports it, as do the U.S. Navy and the oil industry. (It gives the United States a seat at the table on issues like the Arctic's oil resources, which has enjoyed a resurgence ever since Russia planted its flag there.) In other words, there's very little reason for a Republican not to support the treaty, except to show his general opposition to international law.
And that's just what the GOP candidates want. For them, opposing the Law of the Sea isn't a practical matter. It's ideological. It's about making clear that no one else tells us what to do. Even if they did support it, who wants to be the one guy explaining the intricacies of the 200-page Law of the Sea at the next debate? No, better to make vague noises about national sovereignty, invoke Ronald Reagan once or twice, and be done with it.
After President Bush announced sanctions on Iran's military, Obama's camp sent out a statement insisting that "these sanctions must not be linked to any attempt to keep our troops in Iraq, or to take military action against Iran" and suggesting that the Kyl-Lieberman amendment, which Hillary voted for, does this. Hillary blasted back with a memo: "Stagnant in the polls and struggling to revive his once-buoyant campaign, Senator Obama has abandoned the politics of hope and embarked on a journey in search of a campaign issue to use against Senator Clinton."
As the Iran showdown escalates—both campaigns sent out mailers on the issue this week—Obama appears to be pedaling against the wind. As many have pointed out, Clinton took pains to make sure the bill didn't include authorization of military force. And as Clinton herself notes, where was Obama during that vote?
But still, Clinton's tactics come off as downright nasty. Her word of choice to describe opposing campaigns used to be flagging. Now it's stagnant. (May we suggest flaccid?) At the same time, Hillary is still using Obama's coinage, the "politics of hope," against him. Obama originally intended the phrase to mean avoiding personal attacks. But over the past weeks, Hillary has redefined it as avoiding attacks on her policies. By conflating the two, she implies that Obama is becoming a bully and, in the process, abandoning his principles. She has turned his promise of civility into a straightjacket.
Obama should be calling her out on this. If Hillary is going to try and make all policy attacks sound personal, Obama should point out that strategy and rebuff it. Obama spokesman Bill Burton's reponse, sent to reporters yesterday evening, fails to do this: "All of the political explanations and contortions in the world aren't going to change the fact that, once again, Senator Clinton supported giving President Bush both the benefit of the doubt and a blank check on a critical foreign policy issue. Barack Obama just has a fundamentally different view." We've heard all this before. What Obama needs to say is that Hillary deliberately uses his "politics of hope" message as a shield against criticism. If Obama is going to stay in the debate, he can't let Hillary define the terms. Especially when he coined them.