Foreign Policy and the U.S. Midterm Elections

Foreign Policy and the U.S. Midterm Elections

The U.S. midterm elections for Congress, typically dominated by domestic concerns, may turn on how the public views the role of majority Republicans on a wide range of foreign-policy-related issues, including the war in Iraq, national security, and immigration.

September 27, 2006 2:05 pm (EST)

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Foreign policy matters are expected to play a significant role in the U.S. midterm elections on November 7. Political experts anticipate a gain by Democrats in the House of Representatives, with Democrats possibly regaining control of the House for the first time in twelve years. They cite dissatisfaction with the war in Iraq and overall U.S. policy in prosecuting the “war on terror,” which has drawn new attention with the release this week of a U.S. intelligence report indicating the administration’s campaign in Iraq has inflamed jihadists.

In the past, majority Republicans and President George W. Bush have benefited whenever they emphasized security issues and the country’s avoidance of a major terror attack since September 11, 2001. Republican congressional leaders in the preelection session this autumn have focused on national security initiatives to try to boost their sagging polling numbers.

How significant are foreign policy issues in the midterm elections?

Public opinion surveys show Americans this year have more concern than usual about foreign policy matters. A poll taken by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press in early September shows more than twice as many Americans are preoccupied with foreign or security issues than they are with economic ones, and a number of polls show about 60 percent of the public dissatisfied with various aspects of the war in Iraq. Polls show low approval ratings for both parties in Congress but with President Bush’s especially high negatives on the Iraq war, Republican candidates in some areas are distancing themselves from Bush on that war and on immigration, where he has embraced a plan that critics associate with amnesty for illegal immigrants.

Republicans, seizing on their traditionally favorable ratings for national security, adopted a “security September” strategy for the preelection congressional session. In the House, Republicans have advanced legislation related to fencing along the Mexican border, military tribunals, and electronic surveillance of terrorist suspects. In addition to considering similar legislation, the Senate has passed measures dealing with port security and is looking at a range of other homeland security initiatives. Norman J. Ornstein, an expert on U.S. politics and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute says this election will demonstrate “a general sense of distemper or unhappiness about what direction the country is going in” or affirm what Republicans are hoping, “that the Democrats are really bad and weak [and] this larger sense that you just can’t trust these guys in power.”

Nancy E. Roman, CFR vice president and director of the Washington office says most midterm elections are dominated by citizens’ concerns over issues like jobs and education. “Now people are going to their town hall [meetings] and wondering, ‘What are you going to do about Iraq and what are you going to do about Iran?’” she says.

What are the prospects for a power shift from Republicans to Democrats?

Political experts in late September anticipated a solid Democratic showing, possibly winning the fifteen seats necessary to gain control of the House. But they say redistricting by both political parties over the years, which has made a number of congressional districts noncompetitive, has made this a more difficult task than in previous midterm elections. Control of the Senate, where Democrats must win six seats, is seen as less likely. “There’s a very strong chance they can win one house,” says Ornstein. All 435 House seats and thirty-four of the one hundred Senate seats are to be contested on November 7.

What are the main foreign policy subjects at issue in the elections?

Experts like CFR’s Roman cite two foreign policy matters in particular that should bring voters to the polls—Iraq and immigration. The following is a list of the issues that have attracted congressional attention just ahead of the elections:

  • Iraq war. Ongoing reports of violence and worsening sectarian strife, combined with a gradually rising casualty count and enormous costs, have made this the top issue of vulnerability for Republicans, who have generally strongly supported the president on the war. Especially after the state primary defeat of the leading Democratic supporter of the war, Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, Republicans running in some close races have distanced themselves from President Bush on this issue. Democrats have been divided over strategies for Iraq, advancing plans ranging from the decentralization of Iraq to redeploying forces in the region, as this Backgrounder explains. Democrats have sought to highlight the Bush administration’s flawed reasoning for the war and the mistakes in postwar planning. They especially want to highlight the lack of oversight from congressional Republicans on areas such as intelligence and contracting abuses in Iraq.
  • War on terror/homeland security. In a series of speeches in September, President Bush sought to move the country’s focus from problems in Iraq to resolve against terrorism. Republicans said the speeches galvanized their base and they contributed to a slight rise in Bush’s approval ratings. Republicans in both chambers have been moving forward with legislation setting out the structure for tribunals to try terrorists, a bill to endorse the administration’s practice of warrantless surveillance on Americans, a comprehensive maritime security bill, and a measure providing for government regulation of security at chemical plants.
    The military tribunals legislation became necessary after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that existing courts run by the Defense Department violated domestic and international law. Four Republicans from the Senate Armed Services Committee challenged the White House proposal by seeking greater protections for suspected terrorists. Senate Republicans and the White House were working toward a compromise that would permit the Central Intelligence Agency to carry out tough interrogations of terrorism suspects but maintain U.S. compliance with the Geneva Conventions.
    House and Senate Republicans were moving toward approval of legislation that gave the president authority in some instances to order surveillance of phone calls and e-mails without a judge’s approval. Democrats and civil libertarians have argued the moves would be a sharp change to the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which set up a special court to monitor wiretapping in certain circumstances. Democrats support a bill that would streamline the procedures under which FISA operates but stress its importance in conducting electronic monitoring in the United States .
    The maritime security bill is less divisive. But there are amendments to the Senate version that would provide $3.5 billion for mass transit security programs and $1.2 billion more for freight and rail passenger security, prompting Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to say “Let’s have the ports bill, let’s not have the goulash bill." Pressed by Democrats, the Senate added an amendment that requires the Department of Homeland Security to scan all cargo abroad as soon as feasible.
  • Immigration. The House and Senate have been unable to find common ground on a comprehensive immigration bill to address an estimated twelve million illegal immigrants living in the country, with House Republicans clashing on the issue with many Senate Republicans. In place of a broader measure, House Republicans are stressing tough border security initiatives, which appear to be popular, especially in border states. In mid-September, the House by a large margin passed a bill that would build 700 miles of reinforced fencing on the Mexican border, as well as provide for enhanced technology, more agents, and unmanned aerial vehicles to patrol the frontier. The House Administration Committee has approved legislation that would require proof of U.S. citizenship for anyone registering to vote in federal elections. But the Senate is not likely to agree on such legislation before the elections. Some of the border security measures could appear in a much larger Homeland Security spending bill.
  • Energy independence. The sharp drop in gasoline prices this autumn has diminished the importance of energy independence, according to many experts. Still, a number of Democratic candidates have continued to campaign on the issue, blaming Republicans for being too close to U.S. oil companies reaping large profits while the country struggles to find alternatives to dependence on fossil fuels. Both the House and the Senate have passed measures on offshore energy production but they have been unable to reconcile major differences. The House measure calls for lifting federal prohibitions on energy drilling up to fifty miles from a majority of the U.S. coastline. The Senate legislation focuses on oil and natural gas drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.

Would there be significant policy shifts if Democrats regained control?

Democrats have signaled that if they reached a majority in one or both chambers, and thus gain chairmanship of defense and other committees, they would mount a campaign looking at oversight of executive branch activities in the past few years. In particular, they say they would examine the administration’s use of prewar intelligence and issues such as the Coalition Provisional Authority’s handling of funding and reconstruction in Iraq. “No question we’re going to get much more aggressive investigations and face-offs with the president,” in the event of Democrats gaining control, says Ornstein. In a leadership role the Democrats could also raise new questions about the administration’s free trade agenda, says Roman, but she sees little substantive change in foreign policy legislation with a Democratic-controlled Congress. That is in part because of the executive branch’s dominance on foreign policy issues as well as the tough choices facing either party on cases like Iraq. “I predict high partisanship,” says Roman, “but the policy outcomes will not be dramatically different no matter who’s in charge, not because the parties are working together but because they just don’t have a lot of room to maneuver on these issues.”

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