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Democrats Face Some Political Vulnerabilities on Foreign Policy
Biden has a steadier hand on foreign policy than his predecessor, but this doesn’t translate into a political advantage on key national security questions
Last week, we released the first results of our new polling project with YouGov examining American voter attitudes on key issues in the runup to the 2024 elections in five waves of research between now and the early part of next year. Based on the first wave of research conducted late last month, John Halpin analyzed the basic architecture of the presidential race more than a year before the election and Ruy Teixeira examined voters’ attitudes on immigration, climate, and transgender issues.
Traditional foreign policy issues don’t rank high among voter priorities in our June 2023 poll. Just four percent of those surveyed said Russia’s war against Ukraine was one of the most important issues facing the country today, while an equal percentage named terrorism and just one percent named “foreign trade.” Non-traditional foreign policy issues climate change and immigration polled high as priorities at 19 percent and 30 percent, respectively.
That could change, however, given the sharp foreign policy differences between President Biden and the two currently leading GOP contenders, former president Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Both these candidates have staked out positions against continued American aid to Ukraine, for instance, while Trump in particular has been notoriously hostile to long-standing American allies and sympathetic to dictators like Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and Kim Jong-un.
But even if it doesn’t, this poll contains results that should serve as a wakeup call for Democrats on foreign policy—in particular, public perceptions about how Biden and the Democrats compare with Republicans on two key national security questions: defense policy and China.
A big GOP advantage: Maintaining a strong military and national defense
When asked which party is closest to your views on maintaining a strong military and defense, 49 percent of voters choose Republicans and just 24 percent pick Democrats, a 25-point advantage for the GOP. Older Americans give Republicans a stronger advantage on this issue than younger ones, but it’s a clear political advantage that Republicans have over Democrats in all age brackets.
These results should serve as a warning sign of a possible vulnerability to Democrats on national security at a time when the Ukraine war still rages and security threats from countries like China loom large. It will be interesting to examine whether the House GOP’s recent moves to use the defense funding bill as a prop in America’s bitter cultural wars (including measures that seek to shift policy on abortion and transgender issues but don’t have a chance in the Democratic-controlled U.S. Senate) and the fact that loud minority of House Republicans—nearly a third of the caucus—voted to cut Ukraine aid will have a negative impact on the party’s standing on defense issues.
It doesn’t help that some Democrats in Congress always seem to claim that the defense budget should be cut, no matter what’s going on in the world. Take, for instance, the $100 billion cut proposed by Reps. Barbara Lee (D-CA) and Mark Pocan (D-WI) in June 2022—a blunt measure put forward just months after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Or consider the willingness of some progressive lawmakers and left-wing “restraint” activists to ally with the right-wing Freedom Caucus to slash defense spending. All this noisy posturing that only gives the impression of a Democratic Party that doesn’t care much about defense, regardless of how the majority of the party actually votes on these issues.
A slight GOP advantage: Taking on China in a smarter manner
Several public opinion research projects over the past few years have found China to be a leading national security concern among ordinary Americans, in part because many see China as America’s top competitor in the world.
In this first wave of research, more voters pick Republicans as having views closer to theirs in “taking on China in a smarter manner” by a margin of 41 to 31 percent, a 10 point disadvantage for Democrats. This gap is not as bad as the defense gap, but it nonetheless represents a potential Democratic vulnerability heading into 2024. As with the military and defense issue, partisan gaps are wide with Republicans trusted more by independent voters on both the military (49 percent to six percent) and China (39 percent to 12 percent).
Again, Congressional politics and social media posturing don’t help Democrats here: many Democrats in Congress appear more concerned about appearing prejudiced toward Asian Americans than dealing with the very real problems posed by China and its ruling Communist Party. America can compete against Beijing and safeguard Asian Americans from bigotry at the same time.
Non-traditional partisan priorities—a slim edge to the GOP
Americans see two non-traditional foreign policy issues as priorities: immigration and climate change. But these priorities fall largely along partisan lines, with a third of Democrats saying climate change is one of the most important issues facing the country today and a whopping 57 percent of Republicans saying the same about immigration and border security.
As Ruy Teixeira noted last week, a majority of Americans—some 59 percent—prefer a policy of border security and skilled immigration over both closed and open borders and a plurality—46 percent—favor an “all of the above” energy policy. While half of Democrats agree with the majority position on immigration, 43 percent agree with the more progressive position. Two-thirds of Republicans, by contrast, favor the majority position on immigration, with 29 percent supporting draconian border policies and reduced immigration.
On climate change and energy, a majority of Democrats—51 percent—back a rapid transition to renewable energy while 43 percent favor an “all of the above” approach. That’s at odds with the wider public. But Republicans aren’t much better on this front, however, with a plurality of 47 percent preferring an “all of the above” policy but 46 percent supporting continued fossil fuel production—a position held by just a quarter of the public.
A need to shore up perceptions about national security
The center of gravity for America’s debate heading into 2024 remains on the home front, with economic concerns and cultural divides animating most of the discussion. National security hasn’t featured prominently in presidential election contests for several cycles now, at least since debates over the Iraq war dominated the 2006 mid-term elections and affected the early stages of the 2008 election. But as the war in Ukraine has shown, the world has a way of intruding and can shape perceptions in important ways about a candidate’s suitability for serving as commander-in-chief and a party’s reliability in handling national security and defense policy questions. Combined with the disadvantages Democrats face on other key metrics such as “being patriotic” (minus 12 points) and “protecting American interests around the world” (minus five points), these results point to a need for Democrats and President Biden to sharpen their political approach in a way that wins over more voters, especially independent and moderate voters, on key foreign policy questions.
One quasi-silver lining for President Biden, at least, is that the public views him personally as stronger on foreign policy and national security issues than the party he leads. Thirty-five percent say Biden’s views are closer to their own when it comes to defense, compared with just 24 percent who say their views are closer to those of the Democratic Party. Same goes for protecting American interests abroad and China, where Biden is plus-seven versus the Democratic Party on both issues. Biden is also seen as being more patriotic than average Democrats by an eight point margin. But if President Biden remains in a better position than his party, he still faces a public opinion deficit on foreign policy of between three and 11 points when compared with his immediate predecessor, at least on these specific questions.
All this data suggests that President Biden has the opportunity to make the case for his foreign policy to a disgruntled but still-receptive American public. He’d do well to present a more coherent policy approach to China than his administration has cobbled together thus far; despite many good policy moves and worthwhile initiatives, the administration has not made the policy and political case for its approach in a way that ordinary Americans—or even many of us in the Washington D.C. policy world—can easily understand.
Similarly, Biden and his administration need to clearly lay out the case for defense spending adequate to meet the security challenges America faces now and in the years to come, in Europe, the Pacific, and tough places like the Middle East. The war in Ukraine has exposed severe shortcomings in America’s defense industry, and it will take more money (among other things) to rectify them. Both moves will likely entail clashes with self-styled progressives in Congress, but these shouldn’t be avoided and could even work to the president’s political advantage given how weak in support those voices actually are.
President Biden has an important opportunity to define his foreign policy both in its own terms and against the approach of his likely opponents, as well as factions of his own party that are essentially isolationist. But that will require him and his administration to change the way they talk about and explain their own approach to the world.
The path is open—it’s up to Biden to take it.