Public opinion and foreign policy.

Back in April 2014, almost half of Americans (47 percent) thought that the United States should be “less active” abroad.[1] That included both Republicans and Democrats (45 percent each, which suggests that Independents were still more likely to favor caution). However, markedly more Republicans (29 percent) than Democrats (12 percent) or all Americans (19 percent) thought that the US should be “more active” abroad. The Republican “don’t knows” amounted to 26 percent, compared to 43 percent for Democrats and 34 percent for all Americans. Thus, there was a more intense division of opinion among Republicans than among Democrats, while Democrats were more uncertain about the right course of action.

By August 2014, Americans were generally feeling surly about the country’s situation. The vast majority (71 percent) felt the country to be “on the wrong track,” and well over half (60 percent) felt it to be “in decline.”[2] A lot of this had to do with the still-unsatisfactory economic recovery and with the continuing dead-lock between the legislative and the executive branches, but some of it probably arose from foreign policy issues as well. In the wake of the rapid advance of ISIS in western Iraq, as well as in light of other domestic reverses (like the ObamaCare roll-out fiasco in Fall 2013), only 42 percent of Americans believed that President Obama could “manage the government effectively,” while a stinging 57 percent thought that he could not. That left only 1 percent who weren’t sure.[3]

A year and a half later, the course of events had shifted opinion among both Republicans and Democrats.  The rise of ISIS from Summer 2014 on, the terrorist attacks in Western countries, and the controversial Iran deal all worked to polarize opinion. The events sent many Republicans back toward a traditional policy of engagement. By December 2015, only 32 percent of Republicans wanted to “focus more at home,” while 62 percent favored being “stronger abroad.” That left only 6 percent saying that they “didn’t know.” The same events sent many Democrats toward a policy of disengagement. Among Democrats, 69 percent now said that the US should “focus more at home,” while only 23 percent favored being “stronger abroad.” That left only 8 percent saying that they “didn’t know.”

Partly, this may be a reflection of the dissolution of established verities. Only 44 percent of Democrats sympathized with Israel in its war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip in Summer 2014, while only 51 percent of Americans overall sympathized more with Israel than with the Palestinians. In contrast, 73 percent of Republicans sympathized with Israel. Whatever the merits of Israel’s policy, the actual implementation of blockade, bombings, and artillery fire in an urban area crowded with women and children as well as missile-firing militants made for gruesome television viewing.

Or perhaps it was just the return to a presidential election campaign that caused many Democrats and Republicans to adopt policies in knee-jerk opposition to their rivals’ policies. For example, in March 2015, 53 percent of Republicans supported automatic registration of all eligible voters. Then, Hillary Clinton endorsed this proposal. Soon, only 28 percent of Republicans supported automatic registration of all eligible voters.[4]

In any event, American voters will get a clear choice in November 2016.

[1] “Behind Shifting GOP Mindset,” WSJ, 4 February 2016.

[2] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 22 August 2014, p. 17.

[3] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 8 August 2014, p. 15.

[4] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 19 June 2015, p. 15. Still, only a minority (48 percent) of Americans supported the idea, while 36 percent were opposed.

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