The Republican Primary Campaign: Lessons for Israel
INSS Insight No. 325, March 27, 2012
Eran, Oded and Alterman, Owen
The Republican presidential primary campaign passed yet another turning
point last week, with frontrunner Mitt Romney handily winning the Illinois
primary. Despite conservative challenger Rick Santorum’s victory Saturday in
Louisiana, Romney likely will win the Republican Party’s nomination, after a
primary campaign lasting longer than expected. Now, stepping back from the
headlines, what lessons should Israel’s leaders draw from this election
cycle so far?
The long process of picking a US president not only determines who will
occupy the White House but also takes the pulse of the electorate. The
discussion of foreign policy in this campaign shows just how much the public
mood has shifted since 2008, when the US military presence in Iraq provoked
sharp debate. Barack Obama built his candidacy on his opposition to the Iraq
War, and John McCain attacked that position as evidence of Obama’s weakness
and cultural liberalism. Aspects of the war on terrorism – such as the
future of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp – also played an important role
in the campaign.
Foreign policy was clearly far from the major issue in the 2008 campaign,
especially with the onset of the global financial crisis in the fall. But
foreign policy differences between the parties were sharp, and the
electorate viewed them as relevant and as part of the cultural identities of
the candidates. In particular, conservative voters searched for a candidate
who took what they viewed as a pro-military line. They saw that position as
pitting them against not only the world of Islam but also the effete,
peacenik liberalism embodied by Obama.
Today’s cultural conservatives seem to be making no such demand. Their
stances this primary season are based on opposition to the business elite
(of Mitt Romney) much more than on a drive for a hawkish foreign policy.
Another Republican camp – libertarian supporters of Ron Paul – has taken the
opposite tack, with outright opposition to Middle East wars. After an
initial burst, Paul’s candidacy has faded, but even in this faded state Paul
has continued to win over 20 percent of the vote in some contests.
Paul is an isolationist who opposes US foreign aid and military cooperation
with Israel. His supporters certainly are not demanding a candidate who
takes a hawkish line on Middle Eastern politics. Other Republicans reject
Paul’s extreme views. Still, even if the average Republican voter is not in
the Ron Paul camp, his views on US policy in the Islamic world have shifted.
In 2007, an ABCNews/Washington Post poll showed 85 percent of Republicans
saying that the Afghanistan war was worth fighting. Now, Republicans divide
evenly on the question, with only 47 percent supporting the war and 47
percent against it.
On the Republican campaign trail, the debate has shifted accordingly. Four
years ago, only Ron Paul wavered from the hawkish party line. Now both Rick
Santorum and Newt Gingrich, the two candidates waving the conservative
banner in the race, have raised core questions about the war. Even Gingrich,
long a foreign policy hawk, has said that the Afghanistan mission may be one
“that we’re going to discover is not doable.” Moreover, Gingrich said of the
US in Afghanistan, “There are some problems where you have to say, ‘You
know, you are going to have to figure out how to live your own miserable
life…because you clearly don’t want to learn from me how to be unmiserable.’”
The Afghanistan mission was once the core part of the Bush-era war on
terror. Its abandonment by Bush’s own party is an important development. In
that sense, 2012 may see the end of the neoconservative era.
To a large extent, the new winds in the Republican electorate on the wider
anti-terror issues have not touched candidates’ stances on policy toward
Israel, and Republican candidates continue to criticize Obama as not
supportive enough. Most of the Republican candidates have vied with each
other for the position of most outspoken supporter of Israel.
Still, for Israel, the new attitudes among Republicans portend a shift. For
the past decade, Israel’s outreach efforts in the United States have relied
on forging a connection in the campaign against terrorism. Israel’s leaders
have become accustomed to declare, in the words of Prime Minister Netanyahu
in his address before Congress in 2011, “We stand together to fight
terrorism.” With at least part of the US electorate that connection worked,
as terrorism was at the forefront of public concerns and how to approach the
terrorism issue was at the forefront of the public debate. Especially in the
years after 9/11, much of the US public supported a hawkish response to
radical Islam; in that context, Israel was right to sell itself as a logical
partner in that fight.
With the changing public mood in the US, however, the anti-terrorism mantras
may have become jaded and worn. Even among Republicans, the “war on terror”
has faded as a call to arms. If trends in US public opinion continue, Israel
will need to change its message to US politicians and to the American
public. Fortunately, Republican voters who once mentally linked support for
Israel with the anti-terrorism issue seem to have found a new (or
additional) basis for their pro-Israel views, perhaps through evangelical
religious beliefs. Still, Israel’s leaders must not be complacent.
In the short term, Iran may remain the focus, but the life span of that
issue depends on the degree of success in putting an end to the nuclear
effort. Success, whether resulting from a military operation or diplomacy
and sanctions, would be the emblem of US-Israeli cooperation. Anything less
might mar relations for years to come, especially given the US public’s
unease about Middle Eastern wars.
Israel needs a new message to the American public. In recent years, much
outreach has focused on minorities and liberals, as the partisan gap in
support for Israel has widened. These efforts should continue. But Israel’s
leaders risk a fundamental surprise if they take conservatives’ support for
granted. The 2012 campaign might be bringing the first, subtle stirrings of
new foreign policy currents among conservatives. For Israel, the lesson is
that its message must adjust to suit the new mood and not be hitched too
tightly to the anti-terrorist mast.
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