Party Politics - Every vote counts

The skeptical reader will wonder if the case here is not being made too strongly. After all, foreign policy issues seldom decide elections in the United States. Does it not follow that American diplomacy and party politics must have only minor influence on each other? Not necessarily. It is true that in the United States, as in other countries, voters tend to give their chief attention to domestic matters. But foreign policy questions, though of less importance, have in most years been significant enough to merit the attention of practicing politicians. The professionals in politics have always realized that when domestic issues are in the forefront, diplomatic questions can still shift a few votes in swing districts in critical states. This can mean the difference between victory and defeat for a national ticket or decide control of Congress. That, essentially, has always been the politician's interpretation of the politics of American foreign policy—both for those who are in and those who are out of office.

This is still true and can be seen in the care with which presidential aspirants take on Israeli questions and the related matter of the Jewish vote. Small in national totals, this vote is critically important in New York, California, and other states with major urban centers. Even in 1948, Clark Clifford and other Truman aides were thinking partly about electoral politics in urging the president to extend recognition to the new State of Israel. Since 1876, Clifford knew, every winner of a presidential election had carried New York State, where in the 1940s Jews constituted 14 percent of the population. Extending recognition to Israel would help deliver the state to Truman in November and could also help the president in other states with sizable Jewish populations. The Emergency Committee on Zionist Affairs, and later the American Zionist Council and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee—the latter self-described as "the most powerful, best-run, and effective foreign policy interest group in Washington"—proved effective in exploiting the potential power of the Jewish vote to gain continued material and diplomatic backing for Israel.

True, the close U.S.–Israel relationship after 1948 was the product of many things. Israel had the strongest military force in the Middle East, and there were good geostrategic reasons why Washington sought to maintain close ties with Israel and work together on matters of common interest. Moreover, the convictions of evangelical Christians, as well as the feelings of other Americans touched by the courage of Israel, meant that a broad cross-section of Americans could be counted on to back firm U.S. support for Israel's security. Nevertheless, it would be foolish to deny that electoral imperatives influenced American policy toward the Middle East at all points after the late 1940s.

Likewise, America's policy toward Cuba after 1959 was deeply affected by the influence of the Cuban-American community in South Florida and the desire of presidential contenders to win Florida's sizable chunk of electoral votes. In October 1976, for example, Cyrus Vance, then a foreign policy adviser to Jimmy Carter's presidential campaign, advised that "the time has come to move away from our past policy of isolation. Our boycott has proved ineffective, and there has been a decline of Cuba's export of revolution in the region." If the United States lifted the long-standing embargo on food and medicine, Vance speculated, the Castro government might reduce its level of support for the leftist Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) in Angola. Carter was sympathetic, but he acted cautiously in the campaign. "There were no votes to be won, and many to be lost, by indicating friendliness toward Castro," the historian Gaddis Smith wrote of Carter's thinking. Subsequent presidents would encounter the same dilemma when they contemplated a change in Cuba policy: the need to weigh an alteration to a failed and indeed counterproductive embargo policy against the perceived power of the militantly anti-Castro Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) to sway the Florida vote.

These kinds of calculations were nothing new in American politics. From 1865 to 1895, for example, most Americans were too absorbed in goings-on at home to spare much time for over-seas developments. Voter attention revolved around such domestic concerns as the reconstruction of the South, sagging prices, and recurrent depressions. Nevertheless, national politicians labored hard on the diplomatic sections of their party platforms, and candidates spent time outlining or camouflaging their opinions on foreign policy. The reason was plain. The Republicans and Democrats were evenly balanced, and presidential and congressional elections were decided by razor-thin margins. The least slip, even on diplomatic positions, might mean the loss of a handful of votes, which could spell calamity at the polls.

It is well to remember that, when domestic questions rule, they often relate closely to foreign policy. This has been the case with tariffs, immigration, witch hunts against radicals, and, in the early twenty-first century, with agricultural prices and production and trade deals such as the North American Free Trade Agreement of 1994. The relation of these problems to party politics—which is often very close—again draws diplomacy into the domestic political arena.

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