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The Politics of Normalization with Cuba

Peter Harris argues that Obama’s foreign policy decisions are usually driven by domestic political considerations, but he curiously concludes that the decision to resume relations with Cuba doesn’t fit this pattern:

Far from hewing to domestic opinion on the matter, then, pursuing rapprochement with Cuba might well end up hurting President Obama’s domestic standing.

Harris is right that Obama’s decision isn’t going to make relations with Congress any easier, but it doesn’t follow that this is going to hurt Obama’s political standing at home. It could be that the decision was just a matter of ending what James Fallows dubs the “stupidest part” of our foreign policy, and it’s possible that domestic political considerations didn’t enter into it, but that doesn’t seem likely. Cuba policy hasn’t changed significantly for decades because of domestic politics, so it is strange to think that the president would or could ignore that when making a major change in the policy.

Jonathan Bernstein finds evidence that this was at least partly a political decision, which he thinks is as it should be:

As Greg Sargent notes, Obama’s statement and actions today echo what Hillary Clinton said about Cuba in her recent book, which was written mainly to further her presidential campaign. Indeed, Cuban normalization appears to be, at least on the surface, a pretty obvious electoral ploy for Democrats: interest groups within the party are either indifferent or supportive, and Republican groups have very mixed views.

So the better interpretation of Obama’s decision is that it was driven by the elections that put him in office as well as his interest in seeing a Democrat succeed him.

That makes sense. Normalization is broadly popular in the country and especially in Florida. There is majority support for normalization nationally, and it is even higher in Florida. Cuban-Americans in particular have become much more supportive of normal relations and of ending the embargo, so the political calculations that once made revising Cuba policy unacceptably risky have changed. Instead of being a liability for the next Democratic nominee, Obama’s decision might very well help his party’s candidate in 2016 among those voters that a Democratic candidate will need to turn out.

The advantage that hard-liners used to have on this issue was that they were the only ones that cared about it, and they cared about it intensely, which made it too risky to oppose them. The political landscape has changed enough that this advantage is not great enough to spook state and national Democratic politicians, and there are now Democratic-leaning constituencies that are likely to reward politicians for backing normalization. Insofar as it sends Republican members of Congress into fits and reminds voters how truly inflexible and hard-line their foreign policy views are, the decision to resume relations probably helps many Democratic candidates in the next election by showing that their opponents are wedded to indefensible, failed policies.

Harris assumes that Obama “will incur some short-term domestic-political backlash over his opening to Cuba,” but other than provoking Republican hard-liners to denounce him (as they do on a weekly basis anyway) I don’t see much of a backlash happening. While Harris considers Obama’s decision admirable because it was “a decision made in blissful ignorance of the domestic political milieu above which it hovers,” on closer inspection that seems very wrong. It was a decision that seems to have been made with full awareness of the changing domestic politics of the issue, and that led the administration to recognize that an opening to Cuba wasn’t anything like the political risk that it would have been in the past.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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