The White House offered behind-the-scenes reassurance to the press this week that President Obama will not try to make political use of the military campaign against the Islamic State terrorists. It is a pledge that draws an implied contrast with President George W. Bush's use of 9/11 in the 2002 midterm elections. But it could rank as an especially inconsequential campaign promise.
The hard political fact is that there really is no political advantage for the president in his decision to lead an international coalition to "degrade and ultimately destroy" the terrorists in the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria who so shocked Americans with their brutal beheadings of two American journalists. It is hard to see any potential for this to become any kind of game-changer in this year's elections—even if the White House wanted to exploit it for political gain.
If anything, the president could find Democrats in an even deeper political hole because his use of force could alienate the women and progressives who are the party's base. Instead of bringing more of them to the polls, the American intervention in what the president concedes is "somebody else's civil war" could keep more of them at home on Election Day. "It has helped the president with people who won't vote for him anyway—Republicans. And it has hurt the president with people he counts as his base—the antiwar Left," said Bush's former press secretary Ari Fleischer. "So take it at face value that the administration is not going to use it politically. Because they can't. There is nothing there for them to use."
The initial polling backs up Fleischer's assessment. "What we saw in our poll over the weekend was Democrats have a lot of reservations," said Carroll Doherty, director of political research at the Pew Research Center. "Sixty percent approve of the mission, but Democrats are worried that we'll get too involved. Sixty-four percent of them approve of this plan, but Republicans say their bigger concern is that we will not go far enough." It is, said Doherty, "a really stark difference" that helps explain why there is no clear political boost for Democrats.
Particularly worrisome to Democrats is the sharp difference between men and women in their support for the president's decision. A heavy turnout of women is critical to any hopes for Democratic success. But only 44 percent of women approve of U.S. military action in Syria or Iraq, while 33 percent disapprove. This contrasts with the 62 percent of men who approve, versus 25 percent against, according to Pew's poll taken Sept. 11-14. The youngest voters, those aged 18 to 29, are similarly conflicted about the military action, supporting it by only 43 percent with 37 percent opposed—by far the lowest approval rate of any age group.
History also suggests that it would be very difficult for Obama to effectively use the ISIS military campaign to change the dynamics of this year's election. In the 17 midterm elections since World War II, only twice have presidential military decisions reshaped the electoral dynamics.
Most recently, it was the 2002 midterm, only 14 months after the nation was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001. President Bush was still riding a wave of national unity with a 67 percent approval rating in the last week of October. And Republicans were not bashful about trying to turn that to their political benefit. Bush's political adviser, Karl Rove, bluntly outlined that in a speech to the Republican National Committee Winter Meeting, when he urged the GOP to make the 2002 election all about terrorism. "We can also go to the country on this issue because they trust the Republican Party to do a better job of protecting and strengthening America's military might and thereby protecting America," he said.
Bush followed this script faithfully. In almost every speech he gave in October—even for gubernatorial candidates—he pointedly noted, "There's an enemy which still hates America lurking around." And he promised "to protect the enemy from hitting us again." The message worked—Republicans bucked the historical trend and gained two seats in the Senate and a net eight seats in the House.
The only other midterm where a military crisis fundamentally changed the dynamic of the campaign was in 1962. President Kennedy was campaigning that year with almost no mentions of foreign policy. His speeches in Cleveland and Chicago on Oct. 19 were solely about the need to pass Medicare and improved health care, the minimum wage, and hospitals. But after giving those speeches, he abruptly canceled the rest of a planned seven-state campaign swing. The White House announced he had a "husky" voice and a bad cold and needed to return to the Washington for a day of bed rest. Instead, once back at the White House, he huddled with his military advisers and studied reconnaissance photos showing Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba. Two days later, he addressed the nation, announcing a naval quarantine of Cuba and warning of "an explicit threat to the peace and security of all the Americas."
Kennedy accused the Soviets of being "deliberately provocative" and spoke ominously of "a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union." The world, he said, was on "the abyss of destruction." After a week of mounting tension and fears of all-out war, the Soviets backed down, which the president announced in an address to the nation on Nov. 2—four days before the elections. Kennedy never returned to the campaign. Republicans, watching their precrisis advantage disappear, were crushed. Sen. Barry Goldwater accused Kennedy of playing politics. And Rep. Thomas Curtis of Missouri groused that the crisis was "phony and contrived for election purposes." On Election Day, Democrats, boosted by the crisis, outperformed all expectations. They gained four seats in the Senate and lost only four in the House.
Fifty-two years later, Democrats would exult in any kind of turnaround in this year's midterms. But they know that an attack on ISIS is no Cuban missile crisis. And most of them understand that any Democratic hopes to gain political benefit from these military strikes are further complicated by the president's own rhetoric. His reassurance that "we have not yet detected specific plotting against our homeland" is not exactly oratory that will rally the country behind a commander in chief, and not quite the same as warning of an "abyss of destruction," as Kennedy did. "Obama is casting this intentionally as a limited military effort," said Doherty. "So the public is reacting to that. It is not as if there is a clear sense that the nation is now on more of a war footing."
Additionally, longtime political analyst Rhodes Cook noted, there are too many other issues captivating the midterm electorate. "I don't see it making a huge difference in the campaign," he told National Journal. "This thing seems to be playing out on a side burner compared to the other basic issues that are already there."