Dem 51
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The War in Israel, Part II: The Buck Stops Here

Now it's time to talk about the domestic political puzzle that Joe Biden is grappling with. As we have noted in previous posts, skillful management of a foreign affairs crisis can be a real boon for a president. In Biden's case, however, it's going to take something of a miracle for things to work out that way.

There are, at the moment, two major problems the President has when it comes to building support and consensus at home. The first is that we are in a political era where the opposition reflexively opposes, 100% of the time. Even the most popular foreign policy moves in U.S. history (say, entering World War II) engendered some domestic opposition. However, at the moment, about 40% of the population will not support any foreign policy move by Biden or any other Democrat, no matter how justified, or how well-executed, or how much it advances the Republican Party's agenda (e.g., protecting Israel).

The response of Tim Scott is representative. His brand is that he's a conservative, but a laid-back, genial conservative. And yet, he's been full of venom for Biden ever since Hamas launched its war against Israel. The Senator asserted that the President has "blood on his hands" shortly after the first atrocities were made public, basing that on the $6 billion in Iranian funds that were unfrozen in exchange for the release of hostages.

This weekend, Scott was asked if he regrets saying that, given that the $6 billion remains untouched (and is now re-frozen), and that there's no public evidence that Iran was involved in spurring Hamas to action. "I don't, actually," Scott said. "I'm a happy warrior, without any question. But we are now in the midst of a conflict, and so the warrior in me requires responsibility to start at the top." Despite this, Scott struggled to explain exactly how Biden bears responsibility for the conflict; the only thing that's certain is that Biden is somehow at fault. Needless to say, the Senator is also unwilling to give any credit for anything that the President might have done correctly. Meanwhile, none of these interviewers ever think to ask: "How can you be sure that Iran is not being motivated, instead, by Donald Trump's order to kill Qasem Soleimani?"

The other problem for Biden is that this particular foreign policy situation is rather far removed from a melodrama. By that, we mean that it really helps, in terms of domestic politics, if one side in a foreign policy crisis is a mustachioed villain and the other side is a damsel in distress. People like to fight evil and they like to come to the rescue of those who cannot rescue themselves.

In the case of Israel and Hamas, it's not so simple (also see below). Broadly speaking, the government of Israel is led by a deeply problematic man in Benjamin Netanyahu, and he has been responsible for deeply problematic things (including tacit encouragement of Hamas). Meanwhile, the people of Israel, on the whole, bear relatively little responsibility for their government's actions, given the parliamentary system and given Netanyahu's ability and willingness to do whatever it takes to stay in power.

The situation in Gaza has a similar dynamic. Hamas is not just deeply problematic, it's terroristic and dictatorial. If you are looking for evil on Earth, Hamas would be a good place to start. The people of Gaza, by contrast, are largely innocents. Undoubtedly some of them are pro-Hamas, but most are stuck, since the Israeli government won't let them leave, and Hamas persecutes (and often executes) any "voter" who does not give their "support."

So you have something of a mustachioed villain on both sides, and something of a damsel in distress on both sides. And, as a result, the Democratic Party is highly divided. There are two cleavages where this is particularly evident. The first is that the Democratic Party includes some voters who are Muslim, or of Middle Eastern descent, or both, and who see any support for Israel as, in effect, aiding and abetting the enemy. There are a couple of swing states, most obviously Michigan, where these voters are large enough in number to potentially flip the state if they vote third-party or stay home on Election Day.

The other cleavage is between younger and older Democrats. Broadly speaking, the older a Democratic voter is, the more likely they are to see Israel as a victim in the current crisis. The younger a Democratic voter is, and thus the more likely they are to have grown up in a world where Netanyahu and Israel are synonymous, the less likely they are to see things that way. A new poll from CNN lays it out in black and white. In response to the question "Do you think the Israeli government's military response to the Hamas attacks is fully justified?" 81% of respondents 65+ said "yes" but just 33% of respondents under 45 and just 27% of respondents 18-34 agreed.

It is true that the CNN poll surveyed a sample representing all Americans, but there's no way to get to that big a gap without a big-time divide between Democratic respondents. And the newest poll from CBS/YouGov confirms that. While Americans, including Democrats, are broadly supportive of humanitarian aid to Israel (76% support) and diplomacy (72% support), they are much more divided on arms for Israel and aid for Gaza. When it comes to the arms for Israel, 48% of all respondents and just 47% of Democrats like that idea. When it comes to humanitarian aid for Gaza, 57% of all respondents and 70% of Democrats are in favor. The latter sets of numbers are made possible because Republican respondents tend to like the idea of arming the Israelis (57% support) and tend to dislike helping the Palestinians in Gaza (59% say the U.S. shouldn't do it).

The upshot is that Biden has a plausible course of action right now—diplomacy and humanitarian aid for both sides—that isn't going to get him FDR-like popularity, but that won't harm him TOO much. If the war turns hotter, and if other hotspots flare up (see above), then at that point finding a politically acceptable course of action is going to require Solomon-like wisdom. We may soon learn if Biden has that within him. The good news is that, as we understand it, Biden and Solomon were playmates as children. So maybe the President picked up a few pointers. (Z)

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