Republicans have tried to attack the President's party on the issue of terrorism, but they may just end up helping himby William McCants / November 4, 2014 / Leave a comment
Islamic State’s rampage across large swathes of Iraq this summer put the Obama administration on the defensive, making the militants’ advance an inviting target for Republican candidates campaigning for the US mid-term elections. Obama and the Democrats poll well on counterterrorism policy so the Republicans sensed an opportunity to dim one of their few campaign bright spots. Yet the Republican criticism of the President for not responding sooner to the IS advance may ultimately bolster the President’s war on the militants after the mid-terms.
Despite Republican campaigning on Obama’s perceived failings on IS, the issue is not necessarily an effective line of attack against the Democrats. Although Americans rank the threat of terrorism lower than other issues, they overwhelmingly support the decision to carry out airstrikes against the jihadists. More than 70 per cent of the American public voiced their support in several respected polls. Voters appear mildly concerned about terrorism but happy with what the President is doing to address it.
Terrorism also does not rank high on the list of things Americans worry about—according to a Gallup poll in September, only four per cent rank terrorism as the most important problem facing the United States. The percentage increased only a point after the US launched its air campaign against IS inside Syria last month. A CBS poll records more worry about terrorism—14 to 19 per cent—and a Politico poll has 22 per cent for terrorism, foreign affairs, and national security as the issues most concerning voters. But that still means three quarters of the country worry more about other things, especially the economy. And, at least according to the CBS poll, Republicans worry only slightly more than Democrats about terrorism. The result is surprising since Republicans usually prioritise national security issues—a measure of just how much more bread-and-butter issues matter in this election.
But comparatively low voter worry about terrorism has not deterred Republicans from attempting to spin events in Iraq to their advantage. New Hampshire Republican candidate Scott Brown implausibly claims “radical Islamic terrorists are threatening to cause the collapse of our country.” Republican Wendy Rogers, a former lieutenant colonel running against incumbent Kyrsten Sinema in Arizona, used footage of James Foley’s beheading in an ad criticising her opponent for allegedly coddling terrorist prisoners. Others have tried to tie IS to their opponents’ positions on a hotter campaign issue: immigration. The Democrats’ border policies, they allege, will embolden IS operatives to penetrate the United States from the south. (The spectre of Ebola patients entering from the south is conjured for good measure.) So far, the Democratic candidates have lightly parried the attacks, perhaps bolstered by the high approval for President Obama’s response to the situation.
Given the broad support for Obama’s counterterrorism policy and the impending elections, Republican and Democratic leaders of Congress were in no rush to vote on the President’s war against IS despite grumbling in their parties’ ranks that the President needs to seek formal approval from the US Congress—known as “Authorisation For the Use of Military Force” (AUMF)—to continue his military actions. In the Senate, one of the two houses of Congress, Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid delayed the vote until after the midterms despite the protests of prominent Senate Democrats like Virginia’s Tim Kaine, who demanded an immediate vote in September soon after strikes began. Republicans including John Cornyn, senior Senator from Texas, and Tennessee’s Bob Corker agree that the vote should not have been delayed. In the House of Representatives, Congress’s other House, Republican Speaker John Boehner wants to delay voting on a new AUMF until the next session of Congress begins, while Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi prefers a vote in November.
Both leaders are waiting until after the mid-terms to avoid forcing their members to take a difficult stand in the midst of heated races. Some members from both parties are disgruntled by the delay. Democrat Chris Van Hollen of Maryland tweeted that Boehner should “bring Members back to debate/vote on AUMF that supports current mission but ensures no ground troops. No Iraq War 2.0.” Michigan Republican Justin Amash grumbled “It’s irresponsible and immoral that instead of debating and voting on war, congressional leaders chose to recess Congress for nearly two months.”
Although public support for the war means President Obama might be tempted to forego seeking Congress’s approval, he is better off doing so. Given the prominence and tenor of debate about IS on the campaign trail and in Congress, the president will receive a new authorisation. He will need it in the coming years as public interest in and support for the war inevitably declines as it drags on for years. The extremists dominating both sides of the conflict are in no mood to compromise.
An earlier version of this piece originally appeared on the Brookings Institution’s FixGov Blog