Partisanship & the National Interest

It seems that President Obama’s policies on national security are very popular. This is despite Republicans some criticizing his policies on the Arab Spring for intervening, others for not intervening quickly enough and still others remaining fairly vague about what exactly he is doing wrong, but saying very forcefully that it is certainly something, and it is very important. However, this incoherence cannot account for his popularity, and it seems unlikely to be all down to the death of Osama bin Laden, as some very specific policies are popular.

For example, according to a Washington Post – ABC News poll, some 70% of American adults approve of keeping Guantanamo Bay open. This used to be very controversial. A great many Americans used to oppose this policy – most famously, I suppose, Barack Obama.

Perhaps this, then, is the source of the change. Barack Obama is clear and articulate. When he argued against Guantanamo Bay, a majority of Americans were swayed by his rhetoric. Now that he argues in its favor, they are swayed the other way. Unfortunately, this analysis falls at the first hurdle. The President has never argued in favor of Guantanamo Bay. He has – obviously – stopped saying that he will order its closure on the first day of his Presidency, since that pledge is already more than three years out of date, but he has never made a positive case for it.

One thing that is clear is where the extra support now comes from. Democrats now back keeping Guantanamo Bay open. A clear majority – 62% – back the policy. When a Republican was in the White House Democrats opposed the policy. So, perhaps, this is just part of the increasing partisanship in Washington which candidate Obama – like candidate Bush before him – hoped to sweep away. That sounds like a plausible explanation until you recall that only 62% of Democrats support the policy compared with 70% for Americans as a whole. Republicans back the President in larger number – 78% – than supporters of his own party. This doesn’t seem like an issue of partisanship – or at least not by Republicans.

The figures seem to suggest that Republican voters are continuing to back a policy which they believe to be in the national interest. Democrats, by contrast, are conditional in their support for Guantanamo Bay – and the same, incidentally, for drone strikes against suspected terrorist targets. Democrats support these policies only if there is a Democrat in the White House.

There used to be a generalized tradition in American public life – that partisanship stops at the nation’s shores and borders. For one party that still holds, but this, sadly, is not a tenable situation.

Let us consider a parallel with the issue of judicial appointments. The Senate used to exercise its oversight on issues of competence and integrity alone: if the nominee was qualified, the Senate would defer to the President’s judgment. In the 1980s that began to change. Democratic Senators largely opposed some nominees put forward by Presidents Reagan and Bush. Republicans were horrified, and, largely, did not oppose President Clinton’s nominees. Most Democrats opposed nominees of the second President Bush and now Republicans generally oppose President Obama’s nominees. You can’t be non-partisan on your own. If one side wants to make it all – including judicial appointments and national security – about party advantage, the other side will eventually join in.

Article provided by Quentin Langley
Lecturer in PR and Political Communications,
School of Journalism, Cardiff University


  1. Glorification of “bipartisanship” is what you get when you have a room full of barely a herndud men and women many of whom have been working together for decades. Have you ever worked in an office with dozens of other people? Did you want to get along with those people, or did you prefer to always be in their faces?It gets worse because liberals tend to be ideological firebrands, with “activist” or “professor” in their resume while conservatives tend to be businessmen who like to be flexible in order to make a deal or soft elites and heirs who like to get invited to fancy dinner parties.If the GOP is supposed to come back roaring, all ideologically pure after going down to defeat (after abandoning its principles), who’s gunna do it? 84 year old Ted Stevens? 76 year old Jim Bunning? 75 year old Bob Bennett? The older people get, the less they tend to like real conflict. Orrin Hatch’s once white hot conservatism has cooled considerably over the years, and was already pretty much gone when he voted to confirm Breyer and Ginsburg.The upside to putting the GOP in the minority is that many elderly Republicans, after nearly 12 years in the majority, may just decide to retire.

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