Yes, it’s childish [bold mine-DL], but being veterans of Washington, you understand that the fastest way your (already unpopular) line of analysis can be discredited is if it is shown that you harbor real sympathies for the current crop of Iranian rulers [bold mine-DL], and not just an unsentimental view of engagement or a hyper-skeptical view of the Green Movement. ~Greg Scoblete
I’m not sure why professionals should have to indulge this childish game, but Scoblete does make a fair point. No one should be more familiar with the tropes and tricks of journalists and pundits working in the service of the Washington foreign policy consensus than the critics of that consensus, and so the critics have to be especially mindful of how even perfectly legitimate and accurate observations will be misrepresented and twisted into endorsements of authoritarian governments. I suppose it is too much to expect that policy debate could focus primarily on the merits and flaws of different policy options. Unfortunately, striking the right pose and expressing an officially acceptable attitude are at least as important as espousing a policy position that makes sense and would actually advance U.S. interests.
When it comes to Iran, it is clear that expressing the right amount of antipathy for the regime is far more important than anything else one has to say. This is why foolish people who want to impose gasoline sanctions on Iran, which would greatly aid the regime against its internal opponents, can be taken seriously as “anti-regime” figures while opponents of such sanctions are suspected of being in league with Tehran. It is madness, but that is the way things are. Even though the “anti-regime” solution of sanctions will likely make the regime even more hard-line and even harder to dislodge from power, sanctions advocates display the right feelings, and apparently this makes most people ignore the fatal flaws in the policy they support. If one does not go through the motions of ritual condemnation, empty posturing and the endorsement of counterproductive-but-“tough” action, one is not considered a “serious” participant in the debate.
Nonetheless, I think it is important not to make many major concessions to conventional views about another state, especially when these views inform confrontational and aggressive policies. Before the invasion of Iraq, most opponents of the invasion felt compelled to hedge their statements with endless qualifications, they had to accept the reality of a non-existent WMD threat simply to participate in the conversation, and they often had to go out of their way to state their loathing and disgust for Saddam Hussein. As I have said many times before, this had the effect of undermining antiwar arguments from the very beginning. Having conceded that Hussein was a monster whose downfall they would happily welcome, and having accepted the key claim of the pro-war side that Iraq possessed WMDs and posed a grave threat to us all, many opponents of the war lost the debate before they had even stated their correct case that the war would be a strategic disaster and a terrible mistake. They allowed themselves to be psyched out by the cheap moralizing and shoddy reasoning of war supporters. These war opponents were desperately trying to avoid the smears that were already being used, but all they achieved was to deprive their arguments of whatever moral and rhetorical force they might have had.
Crowley’s article is so infuriating because at no time does he show that the Leveretts have anything like “real sympathies” for Ahmadinejad or anyone else in the Iranian government. He implies sinister things based on fairly innocent observations by the Leveretts (e.g., Ahmadinejad is an effective retail campaigner) that no reasonable person could regard as damning in the least. Despite this slipshod treatment of their views, it is the Leveretts’ unwillingness to play Crowley’s game that captures the most attention. We will never have a perfect world, but we can certainly have foreign policy debate that is much better than the one we have right now.
My main problem with the Leveretts is, like certain hawks, they project a false sense of certainty about the situation in Iran. No one knows exactly how the opposition movement will manifest [bold mine-DL]. The Leveretts assert arguable claims as fact without explaining how they are reaching their conclusions. ~Patrick Appel
The claims the Leveretts have made about the presidential election are substantially no different than those made by Stratfor analysts from the very beginning. All of them have made reasonable arguments that Mousavi voters in general and Green movement protesters in particular do not represent anything like a majority of the population, and they have made fairly common-sense observations that the Green movement has been losing strength as time goes on. Skeptics of the movement’s strength have also cast doubt on claims that the regime is widely seen as illegitimate by most Iranians. These claims have been central to the latest wave of regime change arguments, which have focused on helping the protest movement bring down the government, and the claims are probably wrong. The skeptics’ doubt is informed by what little apparently reliable evidence about Iranian public opinion we have. Compared with this admittedly sketchy and incomplete picture, the Leveretts’ critics cannot muster much more than anecdotal evidence whose importance they continually exaggerate.
No one has obsessively attacked George Friedman et al. as regime apologists or “intellectual defenders” of Ahmadinejad. It seems to me that the Leveretts aren’t being targeted with smears and insults principally because of their analysis, which Crowley does not really attempt to dispute, but because of the policy course they recommend, which is significant, sustained engagement with Iran. What Leveretts’ critics seem to want to do is identify this engagement approach with sympathy and collusion with the regime. This is the same thing that some of the Leveretts’ harshest critics were trying to do when they were attacking Trita Parsi as lobbyist for the regime.
Should skeptics of the Green movement be more careful to qualify our claims? Perhaps. It is true that it is difficult to know what is happening inside Iran, but given these limitations shouldn’t it count in favor of the skeptics that we seem to have understood the balance of political forces in Iran much better than Green movement sympathizers and most Iran hawks? If skeptics have seemed a little too sure about things, how ridiculously overconfident have many other observers been? Have the latter been right about much of anything so far? On balance, whose arguments seem to be more in accord with reality? Shouldn’t that be the relevant measure in gauging the merits of what the Leveretts have had to say?
But it’s not the Leveretts’ ultra-realist policy views that are so discomfiting. It is the sense that they cross a line into making apologies for the loathsome Ahmadinejad. ~Michael Crowley
Via Kevin Sullivan
Ah, yes, it is “the sense” that they do this in the absence of proof that they have done it. I have the sense that Crowley has attempted to spice up a rather bland article with unfounded charges against the Leveretts. He calls them Ahmadinejad’s “intellectual defenders,” but what they have actually written is analysis stating that it is very likely that Ahmadinejad won re-election and would have won it whether or not fraud took place. Otherwise, they are not defending him, his methods, or his policies in the least as far as I have seen, which makes it hard to call them his defenders at all. It sounds catchy, and it serves to reinforce negative attitudes about them, but it is pretty blatantly false. Crowley has a chance with this article to prove his claim, and he doesn’t do it.
There is good reason to believe that the Leveretts’ analysis of the election was correct all along. Analysis to the contrary has been strongly influenced by a lot of unfounded assumptions about what “must have” happened, which has colored and distorted much of the subsequent analysis about internal Iranian politics that the Leveretts’ critics have done. The Leveretts’ analysis did not fit in with a lot of the conventional happy talk about people power and democratic revolution, and because they refused to engage in a lot of baseless optimistic chatter they were deemed apologists for despotism and have been called just about everything short of enemy agents. The campaign attacking them has been simply disgraceful.
It is actually useful to understand that Ahmadinejad built his power base among poorer Iranians as a populist skilled in winning over crowds. Acknowledging that he has some skills as a politician would seem to be a basic recognition of reality. It might also be a helpful balance to the standard portrayal that shows him variously as a suicidal maniac or as a clown. Whether or not the Leveretts think Ahmadinejad is “charming” (a word I have never seen them use about him), it is not hard to recognize that a populist politician can be charming, enjoy a broad base of support, and also be ruthless and brutal against those who oppose him. In many authoritarian and authoritarian populist states, these things are usually linked together. We are somehow able to understand that Vladimir Putin is both broadly popular in Russia and capable of ordering acts of tremendous brutality. One doesn’t acknowledge any of these things to praise him, but to understand something about him and the politics of his country. The same would apply to Ahmadinejad.
The question of whether Ahmadinejad is a “despicable” person, which Crowley asks at the end of his article, is really a rather stupid question. I doubt there are very many people in the West who would not say that he is. I think he is, but so what? Do I get a prize? If I say that he is, does that permit me to make the same arguments I have been making for years without being suspected of working “objectively” for Tehran? Quite obviously, most Americans are going to find Ahmadinejad’s methods and his politics despicable, but what does that tell you about what our Iran policy should be?
What is the point of Crowley’s question? To establish that we are all capable of meaningless moralizing about a foreign leader? If the Leveretts refused to be pulled in by this, so much the better for them. This is more of the same tired personalization of foreign policy. If we obsess over a foreign leader as an embodiment of villainy, it will keep us from having to think rationally about real policy options, and it will absolutely prevent the consideration of any sort of sustained diplomatic engagement. The only purpose for this obsession with Ahmadinejad that I can see is to make it easier to advocate confrontational and aggressive policies against Iran. It is a way of substituting emotion and passion for critical thinking about the potential for improved U.S.-Iranian relations. It is mostly a way of striking the right pose for lack of anything else to contribute to the debate. Iran hawks may have nothing but terrible ideas, but at least they have sufficient hate for Ahmadinejad!
Kevin Sullivan also has a very good response to the Crowley article. I recommend reading that as well.
Update: Tim Fernholz makes much the same point:
Certainly, the Iranian president is despicable, but the restless urge to demonize people like Ahmadinejad has never paid dividends for the United States’ foreign policy; contests of who can hate more do not international achievement make.
Is the ownership of the Falkland Islands the business of the United States? I have no idea how it could be. This is a matter to be resolved by the British and Argentinian governments. Complaints about U.S. neutrality are misguided. It is probable that the only side that could benefit from U.S. involvement is the side rejecting British sovereignty and exploitation rights.
As a comparison, consider the dispute over Kashmir. A long-time U.S. ally, Pakistan, has pressed Washington for yeas to try to internationalize the Kashmir dispute. As the de facto government controlling Kashmir, India wants to keep the issue between the two neighbors. One of Obama’s early missteps was to suggest publicly that he was open to U.S. mediation of what the Simla accord had determined should be treated as a purely bilateral issue. Since then New Delhi has prevailed on the administration to abandon that idea, and the result is the confirmation of the status quo. As a general rule, leaving bilateral territorial disputes to the two parties involved is the correct thing to do. This is what the administration has done in the case of the Falklands, and unless we want our government to become even more interventionist in its foreign policy and even more meddlesome in other conflicts around the world we should applaud Washington’s refusal to weigh in on either side of the dispute.
P.S. Alex Massie reminds us that Washington has never exactly been an enthusiastic backer of British claims to the islands.
But I think Mead is badly mischaracterizing the realist position with respect to Israel. Indeed, I think Mead does realists a disservice by suggesting that they’re confused by America’s support for Israel when most realists themselves support an alliance with Israel. They just do not support the way the relationship is currently configured. Surely Mead is not suggesting that America’s current policy status quo is the only possible “pro-Israel” policy the U.S. could formulate? ~Greg Scoblete
Scoblete is responding to this Mead post. Of course Mead mischaracterizes the position of realists. When the alternative explanations he has for realist views are stupidity or prejudice (all the while claiming that he would not presume to inquire into anyone’s motives), there is a good chance that there might be some mischaracterization going on. Since Mead never names any of the realists he is attacking, we shouldn’t assume that he’s arguing against views that any realist actually holds. Indeed, the position he wastes his time “refuting” is held by no one of consequence.
At one point, Mead writes:
American politicians vote for pro-Israel policies because that is what voters want them to do.
Does Mead really believe that this is how U.S. foreign policy is made? Mead emphasizes that Americans have sympathized with Israelis more than with their enemies for sixty years, which I have already pointed out does not necessarily mean very much about what they think U.S. policy should be. They might very well have sympathized more with the Bosnians than the Serbs during the 1990s, because government and the media told the public an extremely simplified, moralizing story in which the former were simply democrats and victims and the latter were authoritarians and villains, but that doesn’t mean that most Americans must have also wanted the U.S. to take the Bosnian side.
Despite what Mead says, the U.S.-Israel relationship was nowhere near as close for the first twenty years of Israel’s statehood as it is today. If Mead’s explanation were correct, fairly consistent sympathy for Israel over its enemies ought to have always translated into consistently pro-Israel policies of the sort we have now, but the story over the last sixty years has been rather different. Indeed, until the 1970s the relationship was quite different and much less close than it has been since then. As Gallup’s numbers showed, a majority of the American public did not always have the pro-Israel sympathies that Mead assumes have always been driving U.S. Israel policy.
We might as well claim that Washington’s pro-Nationalist stance in China was the natural result of the public’s hostility to communism, and we might then pretend that the tilt towards Beijing and away from Taipei was also the result of a change in public opinion in favor of the communists, but this would be nonsense. Even after 1991, Americans had no great interest in Iraq, but Washington remained obsessed with it, and after over a decade of sanctions, the air war during the ’90s and a steady diet of propaganda most of the public was perfectly willing to back whatever action against Iraq Washington proposed to them. Congress didn’t pass the Iraq Liberation Act because voters were demanding it. On the contrary, the public had been conditioned for years by the government’s hostile attitude and negative media coverage to accept the idea that Iraq was a serious threat and to accept the idea of regime change in Iraq. Public sentiment trails and tracks policy far more often than policy is driven by public sentiment.
Washington makes policy decisions based on a number of factors, one of which is the political pressure that advocacy groups and activists can bring to bear, but it is not normally making foreign policy based on “what voters want them to do.” Washington has not expanded NATO twice because this was what voters wanted. Washington did not negotiate a nuclear technology exchange deal with India because this was what voters wanted. Our government certainly did not make alliances with Egypt and Saudi Arabia because of strong pro-Egyptian and pro-Saudi sentiment at home! Perhaps a relative handful of voters care deeply about these issues, but except in a small number of districts this has no effect on members of Congress. Right or wrong, these decisions were the products of a mix of industry and foreign lobbying, perceived state interests, some measure of ideology and the absence of strong countervailing political forces. There may not necessarily be anything wrong with this, but it is a far cry from a majority of the public wanting something done and having it enacted as policy. Self-interested members of Congress aren’t going to go out on a limb with strong opposition to a policy unless there are incentives that make it worth their while to anger the interest groups that have a stake in that policy. When all of the pressure and activism are on one side of an issue, most members are not going to cause trouble for themselves by voting against the activists’ preferred legislation.
One could point to any number of policies and alliances that Washington maintains and find that none of them was driven by the wishes of the electorate. Like other areas of policy in which a bipartisan Washington consensus prevails, and like areas of policy that supposedly require a fairly significant amount of specialized knowledge, foreign policy is among the most insulated from “what the voters want.” This is partly because administrations of both parties try to maintain continuity in policy regardless of what their party bases want, and this is partly because most voters are not going to be informed and interested enough to bring pressure on the government to make policy one way or another. This means that the public is largely going to accept the foreign policy it is given, and this foreign policy will be shaped to a significant degree by very active, interested and organized advocates who are on one side of a given issue.
There is broad, bipartisan support for Israel in the United States. ~Greg Scoblete
No country favors taking Israel’s side, including the United States [bold mine-DL], where 71 percent favor taking neither side. ~WorldPublicOpinion.org
The Gallup survey asked respondents whether their “sympathies” are more with Israelis or Palestinians. Of course a vast majority will say that their sympathies are with the Israelis. The result would necessarily be lopsided because the question is bound to elicit such a result. The question isn’t being asked in a vacuum, and it isn’t actually a question about what U.S. policy ought to be.
Leaving aside existing cultural and religious reasons for such sympathy, the vast majority of media portrayals of the conflict encourage such sympathy. Our political class is virtually unanimous in casting the conflict in very simple terms that reinforce this sympathy. Are we more likely to sympathize with the modern, Western, industrialized, democratic nation-state whose people’s history is related to ours or with a stateless refugee nation of Arabs whose members mostly belong to a religion a large number of Americans regard unfavorably? The high degree of sympathy the public has now is the product of decades of advocacy, rhetoric and political pressure in our domestic debate almost entirely on one side of a foreign conflict. Pro-Israel sympathy was not always as great as it is now. Not so long ago, it used to be much lower.
The Gallup numbers show us this. If we look at the late ’80s on their graph, we see that just 37% sympathized with Israel, 15% sympathized with the Palestinians and 49% sympathized with neither side. As recently as 1997, the “neither” result was 54%. We do see sympathy for Israel spike in times of conflict. Before and during the Gulf War, the sympathy for Israel figure shot up to 64%, it rose during the second intifada, and after 9/11 over the last eight and a half years it has risen steadily to its current level. However, during the late ’80s and for much of the ’90s the “broad, bipartisan support” Scoblete points to in the recent survey was not there. Pro-Israel sympathy has commanded a majority of the public for less than half the time in the last 22 years, but it has been the constant, default position of virtually every national politician for at least that long.
In fact, if we distinguish between sympathy and actively wanting to take Israel’s side, real support is still actually much more limited. If we believe the WPO survey, there is definitely a difference between broad sympathy and the kind of support for Israel that the U.S. actually provides. According to the WPO survey, just 21% favor taking Israel’s side in the conflict and 71% prefer taking neither side. That suggests broad, probably bipartisan support for disentangling ourselves from the conflict all together. It also means that U.S. policy on this question does not simply flow from the will of the people. This 21% is the real constituency for current U.S. policy. This is a sizeable constituency that has effectively advocated and organized to make a one-sided approach to the conflict practically unquestionable in domestic policy debates. They and the policies they advocate do not represent the broad majority of Americans, even though a broad majority of Americans is now much more favorably disposed towards Israel than they once were.
But these conservative voices mind a great deal if Beck notes that Republicans have an embarrassing record when it comes to deficit reduction, the national debt, government spending, and increasing the size and scope of the federal government’s powers — an observation that happens to be true.
What an odd movement. ~Steve Benen
It isn’t really all that odd. This is what you would expect from partisans when they are confronted with an ideological attack against their party. It is what happens when the people who prate that their conservatism takes priority over partisan concerns are confronted with the reality that they have been peddling falsehoods. What makes Beck’s attack all the more infuriating to them is that he used their own movement venue (CPAC) and their own self-serving arguments about the Bush era (“we were blameless, it was the Republicans who betrayed us!”) to strike a blow against their short-term political objectives (i.e., electing more Republicans). Beck’s rhetoric and his ability to mobilize activists are useful to them so long as these are directed into anti-Democratic, anti-Obama channels, but when he actually proposes holding Republicans accountable and holds them to even a few of the same standards it becomes time to point out that he is a bit crazed and out of control.
This is pretty standard practice. Whenever someone on the right points out that the GOP is virtually indistinguishable from the other major party on many major areas of policy, which is frankly hard to deny, he is treated as a fringe lunatic, a splitter, an “objective” liberal, or possibly a saboteur aiming to demoralize and discourage the rank-and-file. When it was the party line that “big government conservatism” was necessary and right for Republican political success, these sorts of criticisms of Republicans were confined largely to the margins inhabited by consistent small-government and constitutionalist conservatives. When it became useful to denounce “big government conservatism” as the supposed cause of Republican electoral defeat, these criticisms were actively encouraged, but they had to be kept within certain limits. The new line is supposed to be that Republicans have learned their lesson on excessive spending, they have rediscovered “first principles,” and everyone is supposed to be united in common cause against Obama. Beck’s offense is to remind the audience that Republicans cannot be trusted, which would naturally make some voters think twice about supporting Republican candidates. He also made the mistake of suggesting that the party’s electoral objectives don’t take precedence. Beck’s critics on this point would like for the movement and party to benefit from the activism Beck can mobilize, but they would like to keep the GOP immune from the populist backlash that the GOP’s policies helped to create.
This is not new. For the last several months the GOP has hoped to benefit from the anti-bank backlash while positioning themselves as even more reliable defenders of financial interests. They would like to tap into the anger the public feels toward the financial sector, but they are never to craft regulatory reform to address the causes of that anger. So they will appease the crowd with strong anti-TARP language, but it would never occur to them to embrace the substance of populist policies. Just as Republicans hope to win by default this fall, they are hoping that the public will become so angry with with the majority is doing that the public will fail to notice that Republicans are trying to play both sides to their detriment.
To say that the criticism of Campbell is an example of hawks purging one of their own is akin to arguing that skeptical pro-lifers were purging one of their own when they criticized Mitt Romney. ~Jim Antle
That’s not a bad point, but there are a few important differences that this obscures. Campbell hasn’t radically changed his views virtually overnight for the specific purpose of making himself electable on a national level. There were several things made Romney’s “conversion” extremely hard to take seriously. The first was the explanation of how an intelligent, middle-aged man had just pondered the ethical implications of abortion for practically the first time, and still more incredibly how a technical discussion of ESCR had made all of this clear to him. Then there was the timing of the move, which happened almost exactly when Romney began testing the waters for his presidential run. In addition, there was the arrogant presumption to lecture every other candidate on his pro-life credentials when every one of them (except Giuliani!) had a better record. This was combined with a number of other “evolutions” of position that gave the impression that there was nothing Romney would not say for votes. All of these things grated on the sensibilities of many pro-lifers, because they are accustomed to politicians who learn to say the right things and then fail to do anything.
National security hawks don’t really have the same problem with opportunists. In fact, when opportunists realize that hawkishness is their path to promotion within the GOP they are strongly encouraged in that path. Just consider the career of John McCain. McCain went from being a critic of the Lebanon deployment, wary supporter of the Gulf War and skeptic of Bosnian intervention to the most aggressive, most reliable Republican hawk there is. I would have thought that the whole point of enforcing a party line is to make any high-profile candidate toe that line, which Campbell has been doing long before this campaign.
As far as I can tell, Campbell has moved toward the hawks in the last decade, and he had been doing this many years before this current campaign was even on the horizon. His change may have been ultimately opportunistic, as many such changes are, but it has been neither dramatic nor radical. It has not been so obviously tied to the promotion of his political fortunes. The criticism of Romney was rooted more than anything in a lack of trust inspired by his sudden, total, and unconvincing reinvention. It’s not as if Campbell was once a fierce non-interventionist and critic of Israeli military actions. Campbell went from being a fairly standard-issue national security hawk with some qualms about the efficacy of Iraq sanctions and war powers to being an even-more conventional national security hawk who supports Iran sanctions and who has opposed exactly one military campaign in his career.
Then there is the matter of Campbell’s other supposed deviations in the past. The real trouble seems to be that he advocated for a two-state solution before it was the Washington consensus view, and he also supported the reduction of non-military aid economic aid to Israel. The first is a view that is now pretty widely held in both parties, and the second is the kind of argument one might expect from a Republican with an aversion to subsidizing relatively wealthy nations. This is extremely weak stuff. The attempt to use the tenuous link to Al-Arian to try to portray him as somehow sympathetic to Palestinian radicalism or jihadism is outrageously dishonest. Considering how much ground they have been losing in recent years, I would have thought that Republican “pro-Israel” hawks would want as many allies as they could get. Instead, some of them seem to be looking for reasons to run candidates off.
Jim mentions that Campbell is rather like Chuck Hagel, and I think that is a fairly good comparison. Except for his criticism of the “surge,” which earned him his party’s contempt, Hagel was a reliable vote and advocate for every military intervention while he was in office. Republican hawks’ demonization of Hagel always seemed deeply irrational to me. In some ways, he was a much more infuriating hawk than his more aggressive colleagues, because he could usually see all of the pitfalls and dangers of intervention and still supported the action no matter what it was. Hagel was not an ideologue, but he still made all the same mistakes that the ideologues did. When Republican hawks finally did make him persona non grata in the GOP, Hagel had at least disagreed with them in a contemporary debate on war policy. Campbell is being attacked for very modest differences to the extent that any differences exist. The campaign against Campbell is even more irrational than the one directed against Hagel in 2007-08.
Unfortunately, my guess is that Campbell could be counted on to give the hawks what they want just as they counted on Hagel for over a decade.
P.S. Here is a New Ledger interview with Campbell. Non-interventionists and civil libertarians will find it quite discouraging, especially when he pivots from his past opposition to the use of secret evidence on civil liberties grounds and then argues that this is why Guantanamo must remain open for indefinite detention of suspected terrorists. There is nothing in this interview that I or any other non-interventionist would find encouraging.
Jim Antle thinks my characterization of Tom Campbell as a reliable hawk goes too far. Jim mentions Campbell’s role during the Kosovo debate. In fact, I remember quite clearly Campbell’s speech on the floor of the House during the bombing of Serbia in which he pleaded with members to either pass a formal declaration of war or vote to end the campaign. Of course, neither measure passed, but it was at least an effort to make Congress more relevant in the formation of policy. He deserves some credit for demanding that Congress should have a major role in making war policy back then, but there were a lot of Republicans in the ’90s who used to talk a good game about war powers only to forget all of that in the last ten years. Campbell’s opposition to Kosovo is typical of Republicans in the ’90s who had no problem arbitrarily bombing other countries so long as the operation was deemed to be in the “national interest,” which they tend to interpret very, very broadly.
If he remains serious about Congressional war powers, as he claims he does, all that this means is that he does not accept untrammeled executive power. That is a start, but it doesn’t prove that he isn’t otherwise as hawkish as he seems to be. In the end, opposition to presidential wars doesn’t really make him that much less likely to favor confrontational and hawkish policies. He simply requests that members of Congress be permitted to vote on those policies. While this is more than most Republican members demand, it doesn’t mean very much. Had Campbell been in the House at the time, he would have voted for the war authorization resolution on Iraq. Of course, this resolution was little more than providing domestic political cover for the administration as it launched its illegal war. With respect to U.S. policy in the Near East during the last nine years, Campbell apparently has reliably come down on the hawkish side of pretty much every important question. Whether or not he believes that “crippling” sanctions will avoid war, support for such measures makes conflict with Iran more likely. What is harder to understand is how he could have been a critic of the destructive effects of Iraq sanctions and then endorse a policy now that will have similar effects on the Iranian people. Campbell is far from the worst of Iran hawks, but he certainly has been a reliable one so far.
P.S. Jim also writes, “Nowhere does he mention Iraq or Afghanistan today.” The same was true of Scott Brown’s campaign website statements. Like Campbell, Brown was running a statewide race in a blue state in which explicit pro-war statements would have been liabilities. Campbell will naturally de-emphasize his hawkishness for electoral reasons just as Rand Paul de-emphasizes his antiwar views.
Charlie Cook has been more sober-minded about Republican gains in 2010 than, say, Michael Barone, so when Cook says that the Republicans could win a majority in the House his words have to be taken more seriously. Nonetheless, talk of a GOP takeover of the House still seems very unrealistic. Andrew Kohut is correct when he says:
While there is every reason to believe that the party is in trouble and will lose seats this year, there is no solid data that would justify a view [bold mine-DL] shared by many here in Washington that the Democrats are destined to lose control of the House. This certainly could happen, but it is really too early to jump to that conclusion.
Kohut notes that this year neither party has strong favorability ratings, which differs from 2006 when Democrats were viewed more favorably and differs from 1994 when both parties were viewed quite favorably. This difference in favorability is something Nate Silver has observed before. Kohut also draws attention to the difference in presidential approval ratings between Obama and Clinton. While it is true that Clinton had managed to climb back to 46% by the time of the midterms, his approval during 1994 had sunk as low as 39% and had been as low as 37% in his first year. In Gallup’s tracking and in both the RCP and Pollster.com averages, Obama has never fallen as low as 45% since he took office. Obama suffered a significant drop in approval over the course of 2009, but since about September his approval rating has been fairly stable and has not shown the volatility of Clinton’s during the same period. During the first two years Clinton’s rating went from 58% at inauguration down to 37% in June 1993 back up to 58% around the time of his first State of the Union address, and then down to 39% in late summer, and then back up seven points before the election. If Obama seems to have nearly the same approval rating that Clinton did before the ’94 blowout, that obscures how much worse Clinton had been doing earlier in his first two years.
Something keeps bothering me about the midterms this year. Unemployment is nearly 10%, and Washington conventional wisdom has determined that the new administration has tried to do too much too quickly. The same conventional wisdom has unaccountably concluded that left-wingers are dominating the scene and decided that the Democrats have therefore offended the basic center-right alignment of the public. The economic conditions and the extremely convenient political narrative suggest an electoral rout of major proportions, but the generic ballot and presidential approval numbers show nothing of the kind. Reagan’s average Gallup approval rating for 1982 was 43%, and that is the sort of approval rating we should already be seeing if the Democrats were going to suffer losses similar to the last midterm election that followed a very severe recession, much less the epic defeats and loss of majorities that some are now predicting. We hear a lot about an intensity gap, but at least two surveys in the last month have found more respondents stating that they are going to the polls this fall to express support for the administration rather than opposition. That guarantees nothing, but it is consistent with previous surveys from 1998 and 2002 that showed more Clinton and Bush supporters than opponents.
Kohut cites one of these, and I have mentioned the NBC/WSJ poll from late January that showed pro-Obama midterm voters outnumbering opponents 37-27%. As I said, taken at face value, these figures are consistent with other midterms where the presidential party gained seats in defiance of the traditional pattern. I’m not so contrarian and crazy as to claim that anything like that will happen, but it is an odd detail that does not fit the convenient story we are hearing these days.
I noticed something else when I was looking over that Pew survey on the Millennials. Looking at Pew’s generic ballot numbers from 1994, 2002, 2006 and 2010, we see that the two midterms that are most alike in their numbers are 2002 and 2010. According to Pew, Democrats lead 45-43 for this year, and they led 46-42 in 2002. As it turned out, Republicans made small gains in ’02 (8 House seats, 2 Senate seats) despite being the presidential party, and it seems reasonable to expect that they will do slightly better than that this year. They do have the advantage of being the party out of power in poor economic times, and first midterms are typically good for the out-party in any case, so the argument I have been making for a 1978-like midterm election with opposition gains of 15 to 20 House seats and 3 to 5 in the Senate remains quite reasonable. Obviously, much will depend on individual races and circumstances in each district and state and on results of the competition between the parties for fundraising. As they usually are, events during the rest of the year will be very important. That said, the evidence we have right now suggests modest, slightly below-average to average gains for the GOP.