Sunday, July 30, 2006

Iraq and the Partisan Divide in U.S. Public Opinion

Thursday's post, based on the latest New York Times polling report, asked "Does the United States Have a Responsibility to Respond to International Crises?" The Times survey found 59 percent of those polled responding in the negative. Now, in today's edition, the Times addresses the partisan divide over U.S. intervention in Iraq, which appears more intense than any previous division between the parties in earlier American wars. Here's the introduction to the article:

No military conflict in modern times has divided Americans on partisan lines more than the war in Iraq, scholars and pollsters say — not even Vietnam. And those divisions are likely to intensify in what is expected to be a contentious fall election campaign.

The latest New York Times/CBS News poll shows what one expert describes as a continuing “chasm” between the way
Republicans and Democrats see the war. Three-fourths of the Republicans, for example, said the United States did the right thing in taking military action against Iraq, while just 24 percent of the Democrats did. Independents split down the middle.

“The present divisions are quite without precedent,” said Ole R. Holsti, a professor of political science at
Duke University and the author of “Public Opinion and American Foreign Policy.”

The Vietnam War caused a wrenching debate that echoes to this day and shaped both parties, but at the time, public opinion did not divide so starkly on party lines, experts say. The partisan divide on Iraq has fluctuated but endured across two intensely fought campaigns in which war and peace — and the overarching campaign against terrorism — have figured heavily. Each party has its internal differences, especially on future strategy for Iraq. But the overall divide is a defining feature of the fall campaign.
The Times analysis doesn't go a long way toward explaining the data. The piece does suggest that much of the partisan split has to do with the identification of Iraq with President Bush. The article also suggests that the Democrats have become increasingly disinclined to commit troops to foreign hostilities, especially in the absence of a broad international consensus. Republicans have generally sustained their loyalty to the administration, and Independents have been more likely recently to side with the Democrats. An additional factor suggested here is the question of support for the war as a wedge issue in recent elections, with the GOPs 2002 successful advertising attack against then-Senator Max Cleland, a Vietnam veteran who lost three limbs in the war, providing the key example.

The analysis is relatively superficial, given the brevity of the newspaper article format (the issue of the contemporary partisan dynamics on questions of war and peace demands an in-depth scholarly analysis). One variable not discussed is whether the Cold War environment of the Vietnam era created greater threat perception among Americans, and thus engendered an increased bipartisan approach to backing the country's foreign commitments.

On a related note, see
Christopher Gelpi's recent piece in Foreign Affairs, in which he rebuts John Mueller's argument that increasing casualties in Iraq have caused a decline in public backing for the deployment, mirroring a similar trend in public opinion on the Vietnam War.

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