Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Political Polarization in Public Attitudes on Iraq

Jeffrey Jones, at Gallup, reports on the intense political polarization surrounding the Iraq war (via Memeorandum):

Republicans reject the idea of a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq, by a better than 2-to-1 margin, 65% to 32%. Democrats show an even greater margin in favor of a timetable, with 81% in favor and 15% opposed....

Political divisions on the war have long been evident in Gallup polling data on Iraq, and those divisions continue today. Three national elections since the war began -- the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections and the 2006 midterm elections -- have shone a bright spotlight on those differences. In general, Republicans tend to support the war and oppose plans to end it before the situation is stabilized, while Democrats oppose it and seek an end to U.S. involvement.

This political divide on Iraq will be in clear public view on Tuesday when Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, testifies before Congress. Among his questioners will be the three leading presidential candidates, Republican Sen. John McCain and Democratic Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. The candidates' views on the war are in line with the rank-and-file of their parties.

In addition to the desirability of a troop withdrawal timetable, partisans have differing views on how successful the surge of U.S. troops in Iraq has been. Most Republicans, 70%, believe it is making the situation in Iraq better. In contrast, only 21% of Democrats say it is improving the situation, with nearly half (47%) saying it is not making much difference, and 31% saying the surge is making matters worse. Independents are about evenly divided in their views as to whether the surge is making the situation better (37%) or not making much difference (40%)....

Views of a withdrawal timetable and the progress of the surge are just two of a number of examples of wide political gaps in opinions about the war. The accompanying table shows some of the other polarized views on Iraq by party. The largest difference is evident in basic support for the war (whether the United States made a mistake in sending troops); there is a smaller gap on whether the United States has an obligation to establish security in Iraq....

As a whole, Democrats are opposed to the war, and their attitudes differ little by their political ideology. But Republicans of different ideological stripes differ on several Iraq issue dimensions. For example, liberal or moderate Republicans are divided as to whether the United States should set a timetable for withdrawing from Iraq, while conservative Republicans overwhelmingly oppose a timetable....


The 2008 presidential election will present voters with a clear choice on Iraq, with Republicans putting forth one of the Senate's fiercest supporters of the war and Democrats choosing one of two leading Senate opponents, including Obama, who has made his opposition to the war from the beginning a major focus of his campaign. If McCain is elected, U.S. policy on Iraq will likely continue as it has under the Bush administration, with slower troop drawdowns tied to progress in establishing security in Iraq. If Obama or Clinton is elected, finding a quick end to the war will likely be the new president's top priority.

In general, the public tends to side with the Democrats from the standpoint of favoring a timetable, but
relatively few advocate a quick withdrawal. And most seem sympathetic to the Republican argument about the United States needing to establish a certain level of security before leaving Iraq.
I think the polling data on the Demcratic side show some support for the claim that antiwar ideology has infected political thinking among rank-and-file party supporters.

Certainly there's nothing wrong with opposing the war, but what's striking is the powerful resistance to information showing American progress towards achieving our goals in the conflict.

As Joseph Lieberman and Lindsay Graham
noted yesterday:

Unable to make the case that the surge has failed, antiwar forces have adopted a new set of talking points, emphasizing the "costs" of our involvement in Iraq, hoping to exploit Americans' current economic anxieties.

Today's antiwar politicians have effectively turned John F. Kennedy's inaugural address on its head, urging Americans to refuse to pay any price, or bear any burden, to assure the survival of liberty. This is wrong. The fact is that America's prosperity at home and security abroad are bound together. We will not fare well in a world in which al Qaeda and Iran can claim that they have defeated us in Iraq and are ascendant.
There's some debate (here and here) as to whether today's political environment is more polarized than in ealier times, but on the war, it's clear that this country is so torn that a meaningful consensus on such a vital national security issues seems impossible.