DNC boss, president at odds on Cuba policy

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.), tapped by President Obama to head the Democratic National Committee, is a hard-liner on Cuba, which means the chairwoman of the organization intent on reelecting the president disagrees with Obama on a foreign policy issue that is electorally sensitive in a swing state.

Wasserman Schultz’s tough approach toward the Communist regime, including her firm position on the Cuba embargo, has helped solidify her popularity within Florida’s powerful Cuban-American community, but it differs greatly from Obama’s more lenient stance towards the Castro government. 

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If the White House thought Wasserman Schultz’s new role as Obama’s top cheerleader would, in and of itself, win over Cuban-American voters wary of Obama’s Cuba policy and put that vital swing state in the president’s column in 2012, some leading experts on Cuba-U.S. relations have words of warning for the president’s team.

“[Wasserman Schultz] wields great credibility amongst the Cuban-American community. She’s an honorary Cuban-American. If she were the one running for president, she would do extraordinarily well in our community,” said Mauricio Claver-Carone, director of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy Political Action Committee. “However, the president’s policies of easing sanctions and unilateral concessions to the Castro regime are likely to be judged on their own.”

Claver-Carone, a former Treasury Department attorney, said Wasserman Schultz’s new prominence within the Democratic Party “certainly provides the Cuban-American community comfort.” But he was quick to predict that neither her popularity nor her new role as presidential promoter will temper the suspicions of Cuban-American voters toward Obama’s Cuba positions.

“Obama’s policies of unilaterally lifting sanctions is already spilled milk that’s tough to put back into the glass,” Claver-Carone wrote in an email.

Andy Gomez, senior fellow at the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, cited a decidedly different reason why Wasserman Schultz’s hard line on Cuba won’t likely swing many Cuban-American votes to Obama: The Cuban-American community, Gomez said, has simply evolved to prioritize other issues.

“All the presidential candidates who come to South Florida should be warned: This is a different community than we were 52 years ago,” Gomez said. “Don’t come down here and just talk to us about Cuba.”

Gomez cited a poll he conducted following the 2008 presidential race, in which Cuban-Americans were asked to rank the issues that most influenced their votes. The candidates’ positions on Cuba came in last, he found, behind the Iraq war, the economy, the cost of healthcare and the cost of education. 

“We ran [the poll] three times because we didn’t believe the results,” he said. “The Cuban-American vote is not what it used to be 10 or 15 years ago, in terms of straight Republican [support].”

With that in mind, Gomez predicted Wasserman Schultz will use her clout within Florida’s Cuban-American community “to preach about jobs and the economy — like she will everywhere else.”

“She’s got nothing to sell that we don’t have already,” Gomez added.

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), a Cuban-American and a fierce supporter of strict sanctions against the Castro regime, sounded a similar note last week. Menendez said Wasserman Schultz’s reputation within the community will make voters more receptive to Obama’s platform, even if they oppose his Cuba policies.

“What she’ll be able to do is at least create an opening for the community to listen to some of the other issues that are important to them as well,” Menendez told The Hill, “because she has standing in the community to do so.

“However,” Menendez added, “that alone is not going to win the day.”

Some political experts doubted that Wasserman Schultz would fight too hard for Cuban-Americans to rally behind Obama next year, for fear of alienating those voters herself.

Julian E. Zelizer, a political scientist at Princeton University, said if the Florida Democrat puts her neck out too far for Obama, she “could end up undercutting her own standing and, ironically, her own ability to shore up the rest of the Florida vote.”

“So while there will be some effort to court this constituency,” Zelizer said, “it is likely she will tread lightly, realizing the costs to both her and the president are larger than the potential gains.”

In 2008, Obama won Florida with less than 51 percent of the vote. 

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Obama and Wasserman Schultz — both liberal-leaning Democrats — are usually on the same page when it comes to policy issues. But they’re at sharp odds over how best to pressure Cuba’s Communist regime, led by brothers Fidel and Raul Castro.

As a freshman on Capitol Hill in 2005, Wasserman Schultz helped to launch the Cuba Democracy Caucus, a bipartisan group that fights to keep the five-decade-old Cuba embargo strictly intact. In that capacity, she helped lead the efforts to kill legislation to ease the embargo when Democrats controlled the House. 

 Obama, on the other hand, ran his presidential campaign on promises to roll back some of the travel restrictions on Cuba — vows he fulfilled this year by allowing American students and religious groups to visit the island more easily.

The DNC said Wasserman Schultz was traveling and not available to comment. But DNC spokesman Brad Woodhouse downplayed the division between the Florida Democrat and the White House over Cuba.

“Obama and Wasserman Schultz share a deep commitment to freedom and democracy for the people of Cuba,” he said in an email. “Both know that it is vital that we see the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners in Cuba and continue to support all who would seek Democratic reforms on the island.”

The White House did not respond to requests for comment.