The aphorism “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” could cost the Democratic presidential candidates severely. Their reflexive and aggressive criticism of the strike against Iranian military leader Qassem Soleimani is a perfect case in point. Democratic attacks that appeared to be on the right side of public opinion are now looking disastrous.
It is no secret that Democratic voters despise Donald TrumpDonald TrumpJan. 6 panel faces double-edged sword with Alex Jones, Roger Stone Trump goes after Woodward, Costa over China Republicans seem set to win the midterms — unless they defeat themselves MORE. His approval rating among Democrats has remained around abysmal (under 10 percent) since his modest post-inauguration bump. The most recent Economist poll puts Trump’s favorability at just 7 percent among Democrats — lower than any other person or entity in the poll.
Americans universally loathe the Islamic Republic. Polling by Politico/Morning Consult show a mere 4 percent of Americans view Iran as a “friend” or “ally.” That level is the same for Democrats, Republicans and Independents. Iran is viewed as an outright enemy by 69 percent of Americans (78 percent Republicans; 65 percent Democrats; 64 percent Independents). The Economist reports splits of 7 percent “friend or ally” and 73 percent “unfriendly or enemy” with negligible differences among the political parties.
The Democratic candidates might be excused for giving the Republicans a chance to portray them as favoring the only polling subject less popular than Trump if the president’s actions were a long-term problem — but, although the initial numbers on the Soleimani strike are unfavorable, they are not nearly the problem portrayed in the media, and that’s even before the Iranians admitted to shooting down a civilian airliner.
Prior to the news of the downing of Flight 752, the public approved of the Soleimani strike 47 percent to 40 percent, with the typical split of Democrats opposing Trump (70 percent) and Republicans favoring him (85 percent). Independents were modestly favorable at 40 percent to 36 percent. However, half of the public felt “less safe” — including a majority of independents. Driving this number was the high expectation that war with Iran was more likely — an opinion of the majority of Republicans, Democrats and Independents (69 percent).
When you combine the anticipated heightened risk of war with a consensus opposition to more conflicts (61 percent) and a strong feeling that America is involved in too many conflicts (69 percent), it is clear that the concern and opposition to the strike is largely tied to opposition to and expectation of escalation.
But, what happens to public opinion if the dog doesn’t bark?
It turns out Iran is just as fearful of an unpredictable Trump as the Democratic candidates. I expect that public opinion will settle back into the familiar pattern of general Democratic opposition to Trump, Republican support and Independent approval as long as results are satisfactory.
Yet for the Democratic presidential candidates, the damage is done. They reflexively opposed Trump’s actions and got more aggressive when the initial polling numbers came in. Now that the hysteria has died down — and, yes, proclaiming World War III as imminent is hysterical — Democrats have to deal with the fallout of condemning Trump more than a repressive and despised Iranian regime.
Only former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenSouth Africa health minister calls travel bans over new COVID variant 'unjustified' Biden attends tree lighting ceremony after day out in Nantucket Senior US diplomat visiting Southeast Asia to 'reaffirm' relations MORE led off with a strong condemnation of Iran. Not surprisingly, Biden has a large advantage on national security over his rivals: 32 percent of Democratic voters have confidence in Biden, as opposed to 20 percent for Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersPoll: Harris, Michelle Obama lead for 2024 if Biden doesn't run Bernie Sanders' ex-spokesperson apprehensive over effectiveness of SALT deductions BBB threatens the role of parents in raising — and educating — children MORE (I-Vt.). At only 11 percent, Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenPoll: Harris, Michelle Obama lead for 2024 if Biden doesn't run Biden eyes new path for Fed despite Powell pick Equilibrium/Sustainability — Presented by Southern Company — Storms a growing danger for East Coast MORE (D-Mass.) trails “Don’t Know.”
It should be noted that the Trump Administration managed to botch its own message by getting mired in a debate as to whether Soleimani was an “imminent threat” to American forces. The fact is that it is clearly documented that Soleimani is directly responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans and no evidence exists that he was going to stop. That should be enough to justify lethal preventive action.
The Iran crisis is another instance of the Democrats throwing Trump a public opinion lifeline.
Trump has decidedly been hurt by impeachment. Since the House began its inquiry, opinion has flipped from a plurality in opposition to a plurality in support of impeachment. Yet, the public considers other issues more important. Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiFive reasons for Biden, GOP to be thankful this season Bipartisan success in the Senate signals room for more compromise The GOP's post-1/6 playbook is clear — and it's dangerous MORE’s (D-Calif.) decision to drag out the process by withholding the articles of impeachment was a serious mistake.
The Democrats’ mishandling of both the Soleimani strike and impeachment will only help Trump politically. In the case of Soleimani, public opposition was tied to fear of wider conflict. A peaceful anti-climax will help Trump and damage the Democrats’ credibility. Similarly, once the Senate acquits Trump, independent voters will wonder what the purpose was — another unsatisfying anti-climax for the Democrats.
There are still risks for Trump. Iran could still retaliate in a meaningful way. Trump could overplay his hand on impeachment. Both Trump and his hopeful Democratic rivals are more than capable of self-inflicting mortal wounds on themselves. But Trump has won the first few weeks of January.
Keith Naughton, Ph.D., co-founder of Silent Majority Strategies, is a public affairs consultant who specialized in Pennsylvania judicial elections. Follow him on Twitter @KNaughton711