It took a week, but Sen. Jon Kyl has finally chimed in on the missile defense non-controversy:
It appears the president is willing to compromise our own missile-defense capabilities to secure Russian support for another round of nuclear-arms reductions. To accomplish that, he may have to ignore or circumvent commitments he made to Congress to secure support for the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (Start)—among them, that he would deploy all four phases of planned U.S. missile-defense systems for Europe, and that he would modernize the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system for the protection of the U.S. homeland.
The president’s re-election prospects could suffer if concessions on these systems were to be openly discussed before the election.
Setting aside Kyl’s misinterpretation of what Obama said last week, is it actually true that concessions specifically on European missile defense would harm Obama’s re-election prospects? The missile defense plan currently in place supposedly exists to defend Europe against Iranian short- and medium-range missiles that Iran is not going to launch at Europe. Are there many Americans so attached to the idea of subsidizing European defense against an extremely unlikely threat that it would affect their voting behavior? Is there broad public support for missile defense? According to polling taken around the time of New START’s ratification, the answer appears to be no. One December 2010 CNN poll phrased its question this way:
“Some people feel the U.S. should try to develop a ground- and space-based missile defense system to protect the U.S. from missile attack. Others oppose such an effort because they say it would be too costly and might interfere with existing arms treaties with the Russians. Which comes closer to your view?”
Even when framed as a system designed to protect the United States, 50% backed the view opposing missile defense, and 47% chose the view supporting it. If Americans were asked about the current missile defense plan in Europe, which has nothing to do with protecting the U.S., it seems reasonable to assume that support for it would be even weaker. It is doubtful that this is an issue that would sway many voters one way or the other, but at least according to this poll there is more outright opposition to a missile defense system than there is support for one. That suggests that this is not something that is likely to cost Obama support in the very unlikely event that he made concessions to Russia on European missile defense. Once we test the assumption behind the past week’s missile defense hysteria (i.e., Obama cannot openly discuss “flexibility” on missile defense because it would be electorally dangerous), it becomes clear that it is deeply flawed.