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Partisanship seldom stopped at the 'water’s edge’ | Column

What’s different now is how the sides have shifted in their views on appropriate foreign policy.
This columnist will participate in the St. Petersburg Conference on World Affairs. [ILLUSTRATION BY DON BROWN  |  Tampa Bay Times]
This columnist will participate in the St. Petersburg Conference on World Affairs. [ILLUSTRATION BY DON BROWN | Tampa Bay Times]

Editor’s note: This column is from one of the writers who will participate in the St. Petersburg Conference on World Affairs, which runs from Tuesday night through Friday. For details about the conference, go to

A prevalent myth in much of American history has been that “politics stops at the water’s edge.” The reality is that bipartisanship has rarely, if ever, prevailed at the water’s edge. Even from the earliest days of the Republic, Federalists and Democrats bitterly collided over support for Britain vs. France.

However, in today’s hyper-partisanship, Americans may be more deeply divided than at any time in the recent past over the specifics of U.S. foreign policy actions, according to the latest public opinion polls.

Mark A. Schulman

Clearly, some areas of broad bipartisan agreement do emerge, even as partisan accusations swirl. This broad consensus is often at odds with President Donald Trump’s professed protectionist “America first” policies and desired drawdown of American troops abroad.

For example, the respected Chicago Council on Global Affairs 2019 survey reveals little appetite for America to shrink its role in the world or withdraw from existing alliances, such as NATO.

* Today, seven in 10 Americans (69%) say it would be best for America’s future to “take an active part in world affairs,” the highest number since the 9/11 attacks, while only three in 10 (30%) say American should stay out,

* Solid majorities of self-described Democrats (75%), independents (64%) and Republicans (69%) support an active role in the world, as they have for decades.

These national surveys also find solid majorities across party lines for:

* Preserving U.S. military alliances with other countries (74%), and maintaining or increasing current levels of U.S. military forces in South Korea (69%), Japan (57%) and maintaining US military superiority (69%);

* Committing U.S. troops to defend South Korea from a North Korean invasion (58%) and to defend NATO allies such as Latvia, Lithuania, or Estonia from a Russian invasion (54%);

* Containing the threat from Iran, but not taking military action (64% - CBS).

However, bipartisanship breaks down almost completely when we move from the broad objectives of U.S. foreign policy to specific Trump administration pushes. When President Trump ordered the airstrike that killed Iran’s Gen. Qasem Soleimani, a recent Pew Research Center poll finds deep partisan fissures: 84% of Republican/Republican leaners support the president’s strike, but 73% of Democrats/Democratic leaners say it was the “wrong decision.”

Partisanship flares when assessing the overall impact of Trump’s Iran stands:

* Three in four Democrats/leaners (75%) say that the Trump administration’s policies toward Iran have made the United States “less safe,” contrasted with 56% of Republicans/leaners who believe we are “more safe.”

Some observers question the strike’s timing by an embattled President Trump, with impeachment charges hovering. Presidents have sometimes been accused of attempting to fire up their public support during political crises by taking dramatic “rally ‘round the flag” measures. Others call this “wagging the dog.” However, the strike on Soleimani had no impact -- positive or negative -- on the president’s approval rating -- underwater at about 44% approve, 52% disapprove, according to the Real Politics, and unchanged after the strike. Gallup finds a record 79-point gap between Republicans (87% approve) and Democrats (8% approve).

Partisan “conversion therapy” has even flip-flopped views on the latest trade and tariffs brouhaha. As the Trump administration slapped protectionist tariffs on a variety of goods, Pew finds, in July 2019, that Democrats, the party that once favored protectionist trade policies, say increased tariffs have been “bad” for the United States. Republicans, who once cherished free trade, have swung to Trump’s more protectionist stance. Two-thirds of Republicans/leaning Republicans (67%) assert that the recent tariffs have been “good” for the United States.

And since Trump and Russian President Putin have become “frenemies,” once staunchly anti-Soviet Republicans now discount Russia’s threat. In a role reversal, Pew finds only one in three Republicans (35%) view Russia as a “major threat to the well-being of the United States,” compared to 65% of Democrats.

The upshot? Storm flags are now up in both foreign and domestic policy-making, with near-blind partisanship in full bloom and with retribution awaiting any congressional party members willing to break ranks following Trump’s impeachment trial. With Trump’s often impulsive actions and foreign policy challenges looming in North Korea, Iraq, China, Ukraine, the Middle East, NATO allies and elsewhere, prospects for thoughtful bipartisan decision-making now seem limited, at best.

Mark A. Schulman is a public opinion pollster. He was co-founder/CEO of SRBI, one of the nation’s largest survey research/polling firms.

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