Stirewaltisms: What Will Voters Make of the Ukraine Invasion?


Let’s start with my standard proviso whenever talking about foreign policy and domestic politics: Voters work hard to not care, especially in a midterm contest like this year’s. 

We could probably count on one hand the number of midterms in the modern era in which foreign policy was a significant issue.

Certainly the 2002 contests in which Republicans broke the midterm curse behind George W. Bush’s still-strong post-9/11 support would qualify, but you’d also have to say that was more about national security than foreign affairs. Bush’s father and his party were pretty clearly helped in November 1990 by the ongoing response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait: Bush the elder presided over the fewest first-term House losses of any president since John Kennedy. The U.S. misadventure in Somalia pretty obviously hurt Bill Clinton and the Democrats in 1994, and maybe Clinton’s dithering on Bosnia did as well. But they had enough causes for that year’s debacle even without Warren Christopher the nuances of “lift and strike.” 

It’s just hard to get voters to engage—positively or negatively—on foreign policy unless there are direct consequences for Americans at home or U.S. forces abroad. That’s probably a good thing on the whole. Imagine how much more screwed up American foreign policy would be if more voters were engaged. Donald Trump’s effort to make NATO defense spending into a campaign issue generated, at most, the typical kind of soft-bigotry-of-low-expectations applause from voters already supporting him. Barack Obama’s “new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world” scored about as well at home as it did abroad, which is to say “sifr.”

Or, if you prefer, we could go old school: In the 1918 midterm,s when the Spanish Flu pandemic was at its height—I swear this is actually true—Woodrow Wilson campaigned all the way through on his post-war diplomatic strategy and the League of Nations. Republicans won both houses of Congress and kept them for more than a decade. Put your 14 Points in your pipe and smoke ‘em.

I could show you lots of polls like this one from Gallup where foreign policy clocks in as the top concern for 1 percent of voters. Even if you add in national defense/security concerns and specific hotspots or issues like Afghanistan, Russia, and China and combine them, it’s still below concerns about the courts and the judiciary. But to prove how little the issue of world affairs matters to voters, especially when the president is not on the ballot, just ask yourself the last time you have ever seen a significant political expenditure on a foreign policy issue. But again, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The American system and American voters—typically—defer to presidential prerogatives on international matters.

You wouldn’t want, for example, a former president going around and openly undermining his successor during an international crisis while simultaneously claiming that the successor’s authority is illegitimate. Never mind.

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