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Election will turn on foreign policy

Author: Michael Moran
September 3, 2006


For the first time in the history of midterm American elections, issues with roots beyond America’s borders, from the Iraq war to Islamic militancy, from economic nationalism to immigration, will play the decisive role in determining which party wields power in Congress.

With the numbing effect of 9/11 now five years and two wars behind them, American voters appear to be taking stock of their country’s posture as never before, and the mood is angry, chastened and increasingly isolationist.

Poll after poll in recent months indicate the American public’s frustration with the activist foreign policy pursued by the Bush administration since 9/11, a trend pollsters peg not only to the grueling Iraq war but also fears about foreign economic competition, the threat of terrorism, and the negative ef fects of being so dependent on foreign energy resources. The trend concerned the White House so greatly that President Bush made an appeal against “the false comfort of isolationism” a central theme of his 2006 State of the Union message.

False or not, though, support among congressional candidates for policies regarded as isolationist and protectionist is growing, mir roring the public opinion trend. “Immigration field hearings” being held around the country by incumbents determined to pander to those advocating mass deporta tions (like Rep. Charles Norwood Jr., a Georgia Republican) or those whose districts compel them to speak in favor of a more lenient approach to handling undocumented aliens (Rep. Brad Sherman, a California Democrat) are examples. So, too, is the belated interest in Congress among politicians of both parties in overhauling the way the U.S. government approves the sale of certain assets to foreign governments, an issue practically nonexistent until a political uproar de railed the Bush administration’s effort to sell port facilities in six American cities, including Newark, to an Arab firm.

Nothing, however, looms as large as the unpopular war in Iraq, which took President Bush’s job approvals from historic heights to new lows, hovering now at about 37 percent. For well over a year, the American public has been deeply split on the issue of whether the Iraq war was a mistake. There is less division, however, on more cur rent issues. Recent polls show strong majorities now believe a withdrawal timetable should be set and that the Iraq War has made the United States more, rather than less, vulnerable to attack.

So how is this playing out on the campaign trail? The stock example being offered by many analysts today of how foreign policy, and the Iraq war in particular, will play in November is the Democratic primary defeat of the Bush- friendly centrist Sen. Joseph Lie berman (D-Conn.) by Ned Lamont, a novice who energized the antiwar left in that state.

While Lieberman may indeed lose his seat (even though he re mains a favorite running as an independent), the focus on the Nut meg State’s dustup threatens to miss the point completely. Neither the state of Connecticut nor primary elections in any state provide much useful information about what the vast majority of American voters believe about Iraq, about the “war on terrorism” or any other issue.

The foreign issues affecting this election extend well beyond Iraq into Americans’ sense of economic security and, indeed, their sense of who they are as a culture.

One thing all pollsters agree upon right now: GOP candidates are struggling.

The Cook Political Report, which is to election handicappers what the Farmers Almanac is to those who work the land, currently rates no incumbent Democratic House member as a “toss-up.” Ten incumbent Republicans are in that category, however, and support for President Bush on Iraq, immigra tion and a host of other issues clearly has taken a toll.

“Time is running out for Republicans,” Cook intones in his weekly column in the National Journal. “Unless something dramatic happens before Election Day, Democrats will take control of the House. And the chances that they’ll seize the Senate are rising toward 50-50.”

In many cases, longtime supporters of President Bush are asking the president to steer clear of their campaigns, often because of their connections with his foreign policy.

Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, a leader of House Republicans over the past few years, finds himself be sieged and trailing in his race be cause of his role in attempting to broker a compromise on the immi gration issue. Rick Santorum (R- Pa.) virtually indistinguishable from Bush on the issues since 2000, is running away from him today, but still trails state treasurer Bill Casey in his Senate race.

Closer to home, this aversion to a White House embroiled in an unpopular war helps explain why, during a springtime visit to New Jersey by Vice President Dick Che ney to raise money for Tom Kean Jr., the GOP Senate candidate, Kean showed up only after Cheney left.

Still, though the wind is blowing their way on many of these issues, Democrats continue to struggle to sound anything but negative on Iraq. One alternative line, the idea of Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) to redeploy much of the current American force in Iraq as a rapid reaction force to be based in Kuwait, has significant support.

But, as the Cook Report notes, only 13 senators were willing to call publicly for an immediate withdrawal when the issue came up for a vote in Congress in June. More recently, several leading Democrats sent a letter to Bush asking for a redeployment schedule this year. But, as the vote nears, the Democratic message on Iraq remains largely negative.

“To the president, Democrats should be saying, ‘Double or Nothing is not a foreign policy’,” quips influential blogger Josh Marshall. That’s as close to a policy as the party offers at the moment.

That international issues should play such a prominent role in an American election is startling. In a world buffeted by the globalization of business and finance, not to mention terrorism and disease, it could be argued this is long overdue.

Since 1898, when the United States began acting in a way commensurate with its weight in the world, the number of presidential elections—let alone mid-term congressional races—discernibly affected by foreign policy issues can be counted on one hand. Lyndon Johnson’s decision not to run for re-election after the Tet Offensive of 1968 and Richard Nixon’s claim to have a “secret plan” to end the Vietnam War certainly qualifies. So, too, does Jimmy Carter’s Iran hostage-fueled defeat in 1980.

If we include the 2004 race, fought at the height of what might be called the “rose-colored glasses” moment of the Iraq war, then four elections in the past 109 years fall into this category.

In every other instance, through two World Wars, a Cold War and the victories, stalemates and defeats America counted in lesser conflicts, foreign affairs has played only a supporting role in the choices American voters make. By no means has control of either house of Congress ever really hinged on events beyond America’s shores.

That may be about to end. The combination of unpopular, costly wars raging abroad, a suddenly less buoyant economic outlook, a continuing sense of vulnerability to terrorism, plus grassroots revolts on economic and immigration policy, promise to make the 2006 mid-term election the most outwardly oriented in American history. This unique dynamic could provide a welcome shock to an American electoral system so insulated from democratic pressures over the past several decades that many incumbents feel virtually immortal. Who knows, it might even make the media pay more attention to foreign affairs.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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