No patriotic poll bump for Trump, but Soleimani strike may still help him politically

No patriotic poll bump for Trump, but Soleimani strike may still help him politically
© Getty Images

Sometimes what doesn’t happen in politics is significant. Case in point: the current Iran crisis. After President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump administration eyes proposal to block jet engine sales to China: report Trump takes track to open Daytona 500 Brazile 'extremely dismayed' by Bloomberg record MORE ordered the drone strike that killed Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s top military commander, there was no “rally around the flag” effect in U.S. public opinion.

President Trump may have expected a jump in his job approval rating, which is what usually happens during a foreign policy crisis. Jimmy Carter’s job approval surged from 33 to 51 percent in the weeks following the seizure of American hostages in Tehran in November 1979. The rally lasted just long enough to help Carter defeat a Democratic primary challenge from Sen. Edward M. Kennedy in 1980.

Trump has not gotten a bounce from the elimination of Gen. Soleimani.

ADVERTISEMENT

The Five Thirty-eight website shows Trump’s job approval going from 42.5 percent just before the drone strike to 42.3 percent two weeks later. The response to the strike was intensely partisan, just like the response to everything else President Trump has done. By comparison, President Barack Obama ‘s job approval went from 44 to 50 percent after the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011. Trump’s job approval rating has never reached 50 percent.

What the strike against Soleimani generated was a debate.

President Trump insisted that the elimination of Soleimani was justified. “He was a bad guy,” Trump argued, who “viciously wounded and murdered thousands of U.S. troops” during the war in Iraq.

Democrats agreed that Soleimani had American blood on his hands. They raised a different question — not whether the elimination of Soleimani was justified but whether it was necessary. House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiPelosi: 'I'm not counting Joe Biden out' Short defends Trump's tweets as a 'very effective way' to communicate with Americans Democrats fear rule of law crumbling under Trump MORE (D-Calif.) called it a “needless provocation” that alienated our allies and risked a wider war with Iran. Trump claimed that Soleimani was planning “imminent attacks” on American embassies in the region, including the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. But the administration did not produce any evidence to back up the claim. “Imminence doesn’t really matter,” the president then tweeted, “because of [Soleimani’s] horrible past.”

Vice President Mike Pence said, “The most compelling evidence to support the fact that there was an imminent attack being developed by Qassem Soleimani is, frankly, too sensitive to share broadly.” Members of Congress — of both parties — were outraged when administration officials advised them not to question the president’s judgment on Iran. “Congress cannot be sidelined on these important decisions,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) protested.

ADVERTISEMENT

Sen. Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeThe Hill's Morning Report — AG Barr, GOP senators try to rein Trump in Overnight Defense: Senate votes to rein in Trump war powers on Iran | Pentagon shifting .8B to border wall | US, Taliban negotiate seven-day 'reduction in violence' The 8 Republicans who voted to curb Trump's Iran war powers MORE (R-Utah) called the administration’s closed briefing on Iran “insulting and demeaning.” According to Lee, Members of Congress were advised, “Do not debate, do not discuss the issue of the appropriateness of further military intervention against Iran. If you do you will be emboldening Iran.”

Why was the Administration so high-handed in defending its military action? Part of the answer is that this president does not respect the system of checks and balances mandated by the Constitution. Trump does not accept the legitimacy of any other institution “checking” or “balancing” his authority. Not Congress. Not the courts. Certainly not the press, which is the only private institution mentioned in the Constitution.

Trump must be terribly jealous of Russian President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinHow impeachment damaged US foreign policy Trump administration mulling special negotiator for nuke talks with Russia: report Former Goldman Sachs CEO rips Sanders after NH win: 'He'll ruin our economy' MORE right now, because Putin is maneuvering to stay in power forever.

Trump’s entire experience is in business. There’s an important difference between business and government: business is not a democracy. In business, what the boss says, goes.

The reason that there was no “rally around the flag” is the growing concern that President Trump will start a war. An ABC News poll shows nearly three quarters of Americans concerned about the possibility of the U.S. getting involved in “a full-scale war with Iran.”

That’s ironic because Trump is an isolationist. He doesn’t accept the U.S. commitment to protect world order or promote democracy — only to advance American interests by making deals. That’s “dealism,” not idealism. President Trump calls it “America First.” He appears to be unaware that America First was the right-wing isolationist organization that agitated in the 1930s to keep the U.S. from going to war with Nazi Germany.

But isolationism is not pacifism. It doesn’t reject the use of force. It rejects involvement in other countries’ problems, particularly their wars and their politics. It’s a commitment to maintain “Fortress America” — strong and independent, with well-guarded borders that wall off the rest of the world. Literally.

Fortress America will respond forcefully to any threat — and then withdraw when the job is done. No “endless wars.” With the killing of Soleimani, the U.S. mission in the Middle East changed from fighting the Islamic State to “force protection,” i.e., keeping our own people safe. Not exactly an idealistic goal.

Ironically, the growing concern about war could work to President Trump’s political advantage. It appears to be building support for the leading antiwar candidate on the left, Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersDemocrats redefine center as theirs collapses Speculation swirls around whether Bloomberg will make Las Vegas debate stage Pelosi: 'I'm not counting Joe Biden out' MORE (I-Vt.).

Polls now show Sanders leading in Iowa and tied with Biden for first place among Democratic voters nationwide.

“Bernie is going up!” President Trump declared at a rally in Ohio this month. “He’s surging! Crazy Bernie is surging!”

Trump and his campaign advisers believe that Sanders, a 78-year-old democratic socialist, would be the easiest opponent for Trump to defeat in November.

Bill Schneider is a professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and author of ‘Standoff: How America Became Ungovernable (Simon & Schuster).