The Campaign Spectator

Beyond the Water’s Edge

Will foreign policy play a role in 2012?

By From the April 2011 issue

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The dominant narrative of the 2010 Republican/Tea Party landslide is that the election was all about voter anger at and fear of the spending initiated by President Obama and the Democrats. On November 2, 2010, 60 percent of the 30 percent of Americans who do not identify as Republicans or Democrats voted for Republican candidates for the House and Senate. That was a dramatic change from the 2006 off-year election, in which the same independents voted 60/40 for the Democrats, and a sign of broad-based concerns about the government's finances.

This victory raised concerns among some social conservative leaders that their issues had been or would be ignored or downplayed. These fears struck most observers as overblown. The 2010 election added a net 38 congressmen and six senators to the pro-life cause, and the Second Amendment won an additional 32 congressmen and seven senators to the pro-gun cause. How could social conservatives be uneasy about their place in the universe with such electoral success?

This paradoxical situation is a result of confusion over total votes and swing votes.

The Republican base vote is made up of millions of voters who are voting for the same party and candidate. One candidate. Many votes. Many reasons for those votes. As Phyllis Schlafly said in 1980, "Everyone is allowed to vote for my candidate for his own reason."

When voters elected 87 new Republican congressmen and 12 new Republican senators they-with exceptions you could count on one hand-elected candidates who were committed to opposing any tax increases, supporting spending cuts, opposing taxpayer funding of abortion, advancing tort reform, opposing labor union abuses, and supporting the Second Amendment.

And yet the TV ads in 2010 were all about spending and the economy. Why? Because the target audience was the independent vote. Swing voters. Those Americans who on Election Day could cheerfully vote either Republican or Democrat. This year they were motivated to vote against big spenders in Washington. The pro-life, pro-gun voters were not ignored. They were largely embedded in the Republican vote. Tea Party activists were new to politics. If one was motivated solely by pro-life or pro-gun or pro-tax cut views-one would have been active and involved (and Republican) a decade ago. Or two.

Voters know that if they vote for the anti-tax candidate they have an Ivory soap percentage likelihood of also electing a pro-life and pro-gun legislator. And vice versa. That is why Rahm Emanuel's 2006 strategy of running self-proclaimed pro-life and/or pro-gun Democrats for congressional seats was so effective. Many voters saw a candidate claiming to be pro-life and they assumed he or she was conservative, or at least, not actively leftist across the board. But with no exceptions they were -- behind the false flag they raised -- loyal votes for Pelosi and Reid when needed. During the four years of Democrat control of the House and Senate almost all of the phony "Blue Dog Democrats" or "conservative Democrats" were exposed, and all but 26 were turned out of office -- cutting their numbers in half. Rahm Emanuel's Trojan horse was a one-trick pony.

So what about foreign policy and national defense?

If you vote for the Republican you know he won't favor tax hikes. But what about his view of U.S.-China relations? How many carrier groups does he believe America needs?

If you vote for the Republican you know he won't spend taxpayer dollars funding Planned Parenthood and abortions. How long does he think U.S. troops should occupy Iraq and Afghanistan? Does he see a role for America in deciding who should run Kashmir?

Given the importance of national defense and foreign policy, why are those issues not as clear in elections as taxes, abortion, and guns? And now, thanks to the Tea Party, government spending?

ONE REASON FOR THE LACK of definition is because there is no National Right to Life Committee or Susan B. Anthony List focused on defense. There is no National Rifle Association or Americans for Tax Reform drawing clear lines in the foreign policy sand for candidates and voters. Voters know that on guns, babies, and taxes the professed position of a candidate will be monitored by national groups and therefore once elected a candidate is unlikely to shift his or her position.

This situation developed over time. The Republican Party was not always the pro-life and anti-tax party. Reagan signed legislation in California to liberalize abortion laws. Goldwater voted against the 1964 Kennedy tax cut.

Over the years pro-life groups highlighted which candidates were pro-life or pro-abortion. Among voters who actually cast their votes on that issue there was an advantage for the pro-life position. The issue brought Catholic and evangelical voters across the aisle from the Democratic Party -- tentatively at first, and then permanently.

Similarly, the Taxpayer Protection Pledge of Americans for Tax Reform had 100 House members and 20 senators commit in 1986. Today 97.5 percent of Republicans in the House and 85 percent of Republicans in the Senate sign and keep the Taxpayer Protection Pledge.

In the past, the Cold War gave American politics a binary focus. Anti-Soviet or not. Pro-military spending, or not. Millions of refugees from the captive nations of Eastern Europe, Cuba, Vietnam, and Cambodia brought a strong anti-Soviet strain into American politics. Chinese immigrants strengthened the "China lobby" that supported the Republic of China in Taiwan. Many immigrant groups were spokesmen and advocates for a Reaganite foreign policy.

With Reagan's victory and the collapse of the Soviet Empire, this changed. What pressure groups surround a candidate for Congress or president dealing with defense and foreign policy? A politician must be aware and respond to the concerns of the Armenian and Greek lobbies (this usually means annoying Turkey). And politicians of both parties will listen to the Cuba and Israel lobbies. But after that a candidate finds himself without guardrails or guidance. Once elected, a president can support free trade with or shell the port cities of most nations with political impunity. Nixon went to China. Clinton passed NAFTA.

And on defense spending? There is no NRA concerning the really big artillery.

There is a veterans lobby. They wear the VFW hats, but they focus on spending for pensions and health care and rarely speak to choices on defense spending or foreign policy.

Liberals imagine a massive defense industry lobby, but mostly there are front groups that lobby for those weapons systems the Pentagon doesn't want, such as the Crusader, or the second engine for the F-135.

On the left, the "peace movement" has never recovered from the introduction of the volunteer army. Antiwar rallies lost their vitality with the end of the draft. Who remembers Code Pink?

All this leaves politicians a great deal of running room on foreign policy and defense issues. Republicans and Democrats tend to support their guy, whatever decisions he makes. Reagan refused to get drawn into the civil war in Lebanon, even after the attack on our Marines. Bush 41 invaded Iraq and Republicans cheered and Democrats disapproved. Clinton involved the American military in Yugoslavia with Democrat support and Republicans warning against overreach and nation-building. George W. Bush campaigned on the promise of a more humble foreign policy and against nation-building. He then switched to interventionism and nation-building to the applause of Republicans and one Democrat, Senator Joe Lieberman. Obama campaigned against the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, yet extended Bush's policies while increasing troop strength in Afghanistan without provoking pushback from his supporters who supposedly voted against Bush for initiating those same policies.

THERE ARE FEW DOMESTIC political pressures guiding or limiting most foreign policy decisions a president or Congress must make.

Unless.

Unless a war drags on to the point where independents turn against the policy. In 2006, Bush's negatives were driven by a sense among independents (Republicans stayed loyal and Democrats were consistently opposed) that the wars and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan were unending and unexplained. This shift in independents could already be seen in the 2004 presidential election. All those wonderful computer simulations that explain how a president should win big if there is no primary opposition and the economy is strong predicted a 58 percent Bush landslide. He eked by with 51 percent. Iraq had become a boat anchor on an otherwise successful presidency: when Republicans lost in 2006, unemployment was only 4.6 percent and the Dow Jones was at 12,000.

So is this Obama's war now? Who will benefit if Afghanistan and Iraq are front and center?

Will Republicans vote for Obama if he continues Bush's nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan? Not likely. Will Democrats vote for the Republican to punish Obama for flip-flopping on his views on wars and occupations? Also unlikely. The swing voters who call themselves independents are the most likely to punish Obama for "more of the same" and doubly so if the unrest in northern Africa make the world look less safe and more hostile to American interests. One, two, many Irans? The charge of incompetence in foreign policy is most credible when wrapped around a set of failed economic policies. (Think Carter.) And the expense of wars is more deeply felt when added to a dramatic expansion of the welfare state. (Think LBJ.)

Whatever happens, once the election is over, the president in 2013 will find himself with more freedom of movement in this area. There is no NRA or AFL-CIO on foreign policy to ensure that the promises of the candidate become the policies of the next administration.

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About the Author

Grover G. Norquist is the president of Americans for Tax Reform.