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Will the Gaza war really hurt Biden’s reelection chances?
Biden is in the worst of both worlds, facing both hawkish and dovish pressure from key voters. It's partially his own fault.
I hate to write about the horrendous war in Israel and Palestine from the perspective of U.S. elections. The scale of the violence is so large, and the American political rat race is so detached, that linking the two feels almost inappropriate. However, the Biden administration is a very politically-sensitive actor, and Israel is the most emotionally-charged foreign policy issue in America, so understanding the politics of the 2024 elections is critical for understanding the incentives driving the U.S. role in this war.
There is a growing notion on the left that President Joe Biden’s “warmongering” in Gaza will sink his election. Democratic and Democratic-leaning strategists are publicly worried that younger Democrats will refuse to vote for Biden in disgust, as will the Arab- and Muslim-American diaspora, a worry borne out by polling. Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, a Palestinian-American Democrat from Michigan, played in these fears with a video threatening to sit out the election. She included footage from pro-Palestine rallies in several key states.
That is only half the story. The war in Gaza can easily hurt Biden politically, just not necessarily in the way pro-Palestine activists hope. On one hand, Arab-Americans, Muslim-Americans, and younger doves in general will probably be disgusted by a return to War on Terror politics. On the other hand, pro-Israel hawks vote, too. The Democratic base includes hawkish Jewish-Americans and older white suburbanites, concentrated in swing states like Pennsylvania and Nevada.
Many less-informed voters will probably blame Biden for “allowing” chaos and terrorism to break out in the world. They do not necessarily come with pro-Israel commitments — and may even roll their eyes at Israeli propaganda — but will push Biden to take a harder rather than softer stance. The last thing Biden needs is to be seen as a hesitant or incompetent by this kind of voter:
With the 2024 election projected to be a very tight race, Biden will have to carefully weigh the tradeoffs of each vote won or lost by the Gaza war. His current stance, a reflexive embrace of Israel followed by obvious buyer’s regret, seems to be a product of those calculations. It will also exacerbate Biden’s predicament. After tying himself to closely to the Israeli war effort, then second-guessing it, Biden will pay a price for both Israeli excesses and Israeli setbacks.
Americans have an unclear view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, like they do for most other foreign policy issues. A poll by Data for Progress found overwhelming public support for the idea of a ceasefire, something the Biden administration has pointedly refused to push for. Yet a NewsNation poll found that a slim majority of Americans approve of Biden’s handling of the situation. Assuming both are correct, the polling implies that many Americans believe that Biden is already pursuing an end to the war.
Some of that belief is based on the Biden administration’s actual stance. Biden has called for Israel to respect “the rules of war” and allow humanitarian “pauses” in the fighting. Biden administration officials also have pushed the narrative that Biden is engaged in bear-hug diplomacy, meant to restrain Israel by assuaging its concerns. Those stories may register more than the White House’s statement that it will draw no “red lines” for Israel, which is basically background noise in U.S. politics.
And many Americans would probably believe that Biden was tying Israel’s hands, whether or not Biden actually put out messages of restraint. The American public is primed to see Democrats as the “soft” party. No amount of “defensive crouching” by Democrats or efforts at out-hawking the Republicans have managed to change this image. Voters trust Republicans to be the party of hard power and Democrats to be the smart eggheads, not the other way around.
The perception of restraint will not help Biden with hardcore doves, who are already convinced that “Genocide Joe” wants to wipe out Palestinians, and could hurt him with hawks or low-information voters. If Israel fails to meet its military goals in Gaza — which the Pentagon has hinted are unrealistic and over-the-top — Biden will become an easy scapegoat. Loath to admit that they were defeated on the battlefield or otherwise bowed to hostile pressure, Israeli leaders will instead claim that the bleeding-heart American president held them back.
Biden’s own pro-Israel instincts help ensure that he will pay a price for Israeli failures. Early in the war, Biden invoked 9/11 and the Holocaust, and other administration officials made a show of how personally affected they were by Hamas attacks, which they called “worse than ISIS.” Low-information voters are being told that, rather than a terrible thing happening to a far-off land, the war in Israel and Palestine is a direct threat to the American way of life.
Republican criticisms may be incoherent, but they’re more appealing than Democratic defenses. As the violence drags out, a challenger like Donald Trump can claim that he would have prevented or quickly ended the war with a show of decisive force. Polls show that voters are more confident in Trump than Biden to avoid a major war.
Biden’s most plausible response, that he encouraged Israel to fight both toughly and humanely, will be convincing to neither hawks nor doves. Nor can Biden easily dismiss Republican fearmongering about terrorist immigrants, having himself inflated the threat of Hamas to the level of Osama bin Laden and Adolf Hitler.
The war in Gaza is just one of many issues before the American people, and the election is a year from now. Unless the conflict escalates and widens in a catastrophic way, most voters will have moved onto other topics. However, the 2016 and 2020 elections hinged on a few thousand voters in swing states. A relatively small number of pro-Palestine activists with a grudge in Michigan and Illinois, or similarly embittered pro-Israel activists in Georgia and Pennsylvania, may be able to punch above their weight.
If the war does escalate catastrophically, and becomes a direct U.S.-Iranian conflict, then all bets are off. American politicians have never been very honest about the extreme violence and economic turmoil a war with Iran requires. The shock to American society would be enormous; predicting its effect on the 2024 election is like predicting the stock market effects of an asteroid strike. Biden, a dinosaur with a survival instinct, seems somewhat keen to avoid that outcome.
Whatever happens next, the politics of Israel and Palestine have already changed forever. The incentives used to run entirely in one direction. The Obama administration earned only political headaches from trying to broker peace, and the Trump administration won bipartisan support after bringing Israel a series of free diplomatic concessions. Biden learned that he had to continue giving Israel freebies while trying to manage Palestinian discontent as quietly as possible.
Israeli-Palestinian politics are no longer a symbolic battlefield, and Israel-hugging is no longer a cost-free diplomatic win. Israel is again a source of unpredictable crisis and physical danger. Washington has found itself writing checks it cannot cash.
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