If Marco Rubio ends up as president, he’ll have lots of time to convince the American public that his way is the right way on foreign policy – because right now, they often don’t agree with him.
On some of the key hot-button foreign policy issues of the day – the Iraq war, the Iran negotiations, Cuba – Americans as measured in polls reflect different views than Rubio.
Whether that ultimately matters for the Florida Republican’s campaign is unclear. Experts say that Americans’ views on foreign policy are often soft and easily changeable. And in the context of a campaign that starts in the Republican Party primaries, it might make perfect sense.
“If you poll Americans about the questions you are asking, they are likely to be less hawkish than Rubio,” said Daniel Drezner, a professor of international politics at Tufts University. “But he’s got to win the primary first, and his views are far more mainstream on the Republican side.”
Consider Iraq. In the past two weeks, Rubio has been asked variations of the Iraq question: Was it a mistake to invade Iraq, given what was known at the time? Or: Knowing what we know now, was it a mistake to do so?
Rubio focused on the word “mistake” and has held to the view that it was not one for President George W. Bush to invade Iraq. “I still say it was not a mistake, because the president was presented with intelligence that said Iraq had weapons of mass destruction,” he said in a Fox News Sunday interview.
Asked in a different Fox News interview, in March, “Was it a mistake to go to war in Iraq?” Rubio said, “No, I don’t believe it was.”
The American public has a different view. A Pew Research Center poll question administered repeatedly since the Iraq war began in 2003 asked, “Do you think the U.S. made the right decision or the wrong decision in using military force in Iraq?”
The most recent poll, January 2014, had 50 percent indicating wrong decision and 38 percent right.
But among Republicans, 55 percent said it was the right decision, 33 percent wrong.
Beyond that, there are Republicans – and then there are the Republicans who participate in the primary process.
“The actual participants in the caucuses and primaries tend to be pretty hawkish,” said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “That’s more true in Iowa than New Hampshire – but then the Republicans in South Carolina may be more hawkish than they are in Iowa.”
Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina are three pivotal early states in the presidential nominating process. Winning voters in those states will be key for getting through the primary season.
If he were to make the general election and face Hillary Clinton – the most likely Democratic nominee – Rubio would have to persuade Americans of his views. But the fact that Clinton supported the Iraq war while in the Senate could neutralize the issue. And foreign policy generally isn’t a determining factor in most presidential elections; absent some major international crisis in the next 18 months, it likely won’t be this time, either.
“I have a hard time believing that the general election of 2016 is going to be a replay of the Iraq war decision,” said Sabato.
Another hot issue of the day concerns the negotiations for a nuclear deal with Iran. Americans were asked in an April Quinnipiac University poll whether they supported or opposed the deal the White House was negotiating with Iran that “would lift major economic sanctions against Iran, in exchange for Iran restricting its nuclear program in a way that makes it harder for it to produce nuclear weapons.” In the poll, 58 percent supported it, 33 percent opposed; the results among Republicans were basically reversed.
Rubio has said he’s not opposed to any deal, just a bad one – and he didn’t have much good to say about what the White House and President Barack Obama negotiated.
In an April piece for FoxNews.com, he wrote: “President Obama’s desperation for an agreement has caused him to elevate politics over policy, legacy over leadership, and adversaries over allies. It is by far his most dangerous gamble with America’s security as commander-in-chief.” He then referred to “the disaster that these negotiations have become.”
On the White House’s opening to Cuba, which Rubio has strongly opposed, the gulf between his views and those of the public is also evident – and that doesn’t bother Rubio.
“Look, this is not a political thing,” he said on the day in December when Obama said he was working to normalize diplomatic and other relations with that country. “I don’t care if the polls say that 99 percent of people believe we should normalize relations in Cuba. I still believe that before we can normalize relations in Cuba, democracy has to come first – or at least significant steps toward democracy.”
When Americans were asked in 2014 – before Obama’s move – their views on the issue, 56 percent favored a change in U.S.-Cuba relations, according to a poll released by the Atlantic Council.
Given his strongly hawkish stance on most foreign issues, Rubio will likely be ahead of the nation on many issues dealing with potential U.S. intervention. In 2011 and 2012, for example, Pew polls found that only 27 percent of respondents said the U.S. had a responsibility to act in Libya and Syria; Rubio urged military action or support in both.
He addressed his Syrian position last week, in a Council on Foreign Relations session: “I advocated at the time – and I did so forcefully – that we should identify people we could work with on the ground in Syria and empower them. And I argued that in the absence of doing so we would leave a vacuum, and that vacuum would be filled by foreign fighters, primarily radicals. And that’s how it exactly played out.”
Rubio knows his interventionist streak will sometimes require a sales job, since many people are “made anxious by the polling and trends that show an increasingly skeptical public,” he said in a 2013 speech in Washington.
“So it’s important for those of us that share this vision for an active America to always remember that we need to bring the American people with us,” he added. “Americans, especially those outside this city – they need their leaders to make a compelling case for the importance of international engagement.”
Drezner, the Tufts professor, said that given the experience of Iraq, Americans are less enthusiastic about intervention than they were in 2003. But they are likely more enthusiastic than they were in 2010, as they have watched the situation in Iraq and Syria continue to deteriorate.
And whatever the public’s views, Drezner said presidents have a key tactic at their disposal. “They have the ability to ignore the American public,” he said. If Rubio, as president, thinks his policies are correct, the public will give him leeway to enact them, since what is most important is a policy’s ultimate success.
Beyond that, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, cautioned that public views on foreign policy matters aren’t always what they seem to be.
“Sometimes the public has actual views, but sometimes they don’t,” she said. While elite voters may be well-informed on the key foreign policy matters of the day, much of the public would, for example, have trouble finding Libya on a map.
“In general, on foreign policy issues, unless it’s really current, I don’t trust the questions and I don’t trust the answers,” she said.
In addition, public opinion on foreign matters is so fungible that politicians can demonstrate leadership by pulling voters toward their views.
On Cuba, for example, Rubio’s line that he doesn’t care if 99 percent of the public disagreed with him could help, not hurt. Most Americans don’t have strong views on the Cuban opening, and so Rubio’s stance – one that’s important to his South Florida constituents and to his Cuban-American family – could actually earn him respect.
“A candidate can say this is a matter of principle for me – that it’s not my job to decide what to do by looking at the polls,” Jamieson said. “You can say that a few times and people will see you as standing on principle. But say it too many times and they’ll see you as out of touch.”