Starting a War With Iran Wouldn’t Help Trump Get Re-Elected

(Bloomberg Opinion) --

I don’t know why President Donald Trump decided to kill the Iranian General Qassem Soleimani. Perhaps he was rolled by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and others; perhaps it was just impulsive. 

But I can say that if Trump is seeking a confrontation to help him win re-election, he’s almost certainly making a big mistake.

I went through all of this back in the spring, and Michael Tesler goes through similar arguments over at the Monkey Cage. Our view more or less the consensus among political scientists — contrary, as he points out, to the “Wag the Dog” assumptions in the popular culture about the popularity of war. 

The basic argument? 

In the short run, not all foreign confrontations produce a rally effect (an upward spike in the president’s approval ratings). The key variable turns out to be whether out-party elites support or oppose the president’s actions. So far Democrats, while condemning Soleimani as a terrorist mastermind responsible for the deaths of thousands of Americans in Iraq and elsewhere, haven’t been praising Trump’s actions. And Trump hasn’t sought their support; not only did he refrain from notifying Congress in advance, but within hours of the drone attack that killed Soleimani in Baghdad on Friday, he was already using it to distinguish Republicans from Democrats, going so far as to retweet a Republican activist who slurred Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer. In other words, while we can never be certain about the outcome, Trump is doing exactly the opposite of what would be needed to get a short-term burst of support.

But rally effects are short-term, anyway. And so are the public opinion gains if the policy goes well, because voters have extremely short memories. The classic example is the fate of President George H.W. Bush after the first Gulf War. The conflict was perceived as a tremendous victory with low costs, and voters promptly forgot about it as soon as it was no longer dominating the news. Just two years after it ended with Bush’s popularity soaring, he lost the 1992 election. A quieter victory now — say, if Iran’s threat to retaliate fizzles out and killing Soleimani actually does reduce Iranian adventurism — would almost certainly yield no significant public opinion gains because those successes wouldn’t dominate the news. (To be fair: Quiet setbacks, even important ones, probably wouldn’t harm Trump’s popularity because, again, most people wouldn’t notice them). 

If, however, the result of Trump’s actions is a longer military conflict, then he’s really in trouble. The two things that have been found to hurt presidential approval ratings, and therefore re-election chances, are bad economic news and mounting U.S. casualties in a foreign conflict. Trump is risking both. 

Could this analysis be wrong? Sure. Any number of things could have changed so that previous findings by political scientists might no longer apply. Or perhaps something about Trump, or about this particular international crisis, is different in some relevant way. That’s always possible — but partisan polarization would presumably make it less likely, not more likely, to get significant public opinion effects from events of any kind. 

None of this is about whether Trump’s actions are good policy or bad. Policy failures (such as the taking of hostages by Iran in 1979) can produce a rally effect for a president; policy successes, such as the ones that George H.W. Bush had during his presidency, can have no effect at all or only spark only short-term changes. And in the long run, policy successes can be politically useful for presidents even if they have no direct effect on public opinion. Not to mention that policy success is good for the nation.

But if all Trump was interested in is improving the chances of his own re-election? Then this confrontation with Iran is all downside risk, with little chance of any reward. 

1. Suzanne Maloney at the Monkey Cage on what to expect from Iran.

2. Also at the Monkey Cage, Andrew Rudalevige on Congress and war in Iran.

3. Dan Drezner has some questions about the U.S. confrontation with Iran.

4. My Bloomberg Opinion colleague Hal Brands on Trump and South Korea.

5. Matt Yglesias on Trump’s dishonesty and the Iran crisis. Obviously it doesn’t matter very much whether Yglesias believes Trump or not. It does matter, however, whether members of Congress, U.S. allies, and even U.S. enemies treat his statements as if they were likely to be factual. 

6. And a bit of hype for Amy Klobuchar from David Leonhardt in the New York Times. Klobuchar is still a plausible Democratic presidential nominee, and that’s not a bad position for the Minnesota senator at this point. But she still needs to find a way to do quite a bit better in Iowa than the lukewarm single-digit fifth place that polls have her in now.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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