IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

The politics of ISIS

President Obama is set to announce an expanded plan to confront ISIS just weeks before the midterm elections. Will it become a campaign issue?
President Barack Obama makes a statement from the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House in Washington, D.C, July 18, 2014.
President Barack Obama makes a statement from the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House in Washington, D.C, July 18, 2014.

Ahead of a Wednesday public address from President Obama where he's set to lay out a "game plan" for military action in Iraq and as the right mocks Democrats as weak-willed appeasers, former Vice President Dick Cheney is heading to Capitol Hill to deliver a pep talk to House Republicans.

Is it the 2002 election all over again? Not exactly. But the escalating conflict against ISIS is starting to show up on the trail as Republican candidates seem eager to put major past differences on foreign policy aside and join together in criticizing the White House's response to the Islamic State.  

A number of candidates and GOP officials have gone out of their way to attack Obama over his remark at a press conference that “we don’t have a strategy yet” for confronting ISIS. Republican Senate nominees including Scott Brown in New Hampshire, David Perdue in Georgia, and Thom Tillis in North Carolina, among others, have highlighted the quote while demanding action to turn back the Islamist group’s gains. Joni Ernst in Iowa and Tom Cotton in Arkansas, both of whom served in the Middle East during the Iraq War, have also called for a clearer plan to tackle ISIS.

While officials in both parties expect the midterms to largely hinge on the economy, the tough talk from Republican candidates reflects a significant shift in foreign policy thinking among the party faithful. 

Since Bush left office, the GOP has suffered from gaping divisions over how to prosecute foreign policy. On one end, non-interventionists led by Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul have advocated for reducing American military obligations abroad. On the other end, hawks led by Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham have called on the White House to promote American aims in the Middle East more aggressively, by force if necessary.

This split has made it difficult for the GOP to politicize the White House’s foreign policy decisions without opening themselves up to an ugly round of infighting. Republicans were deeply split on intervening in Libya in 2011, for example, forcing some leaders to contort themselves into policy pretzels trying to keep up. After Obama called on Congress to authorize strikes against Syria in 2013, Speaker Boehner endorsed the idea and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell opposed it. They were only saved from a difficult vote by a last-minute deal to remove Syria’s chemical weapons. 

This trend was driven from the bottom up. Especially when it came to Syria, American voters, and Republican voters in particular, strongly opposed intervention in polls last year. Many were skeptical there was a clear American interest at stake in another country’s civil war and it didn’t help that a president they strongly disliked was trying to convince them otherwise.

Now airstrikes in Syria are once again on the table and the polls couldn’t be more different. Republicans, outraged by ISIS attacks on Christian minorities and the videotaped execution of American journalists James Foley and Steve Sotloff, are lining up behind intervention. 

Related: How much do you know about ISIS? Take our quiz and find out.

A whopping 78% of Republicans consider ISIS a “major threat,” including 91% of self-identified tea partiers, according to a Pew Research Center poll last month. The same poll found that 46% of Republicans thought America does “too little” to solve world problems, a leap from just 18% who said the same last November. As for intervention, a survey this week by Paragon Insights found Americans overall supported military action against ISIS by a 61-19 margin, a huge swing from just last month when they opposed action by a 37-44 margin. CNN found 76% of Americans favor additional airstrikes.

Numbers like these lend context to Rand Paul’s jarring transformation from a leading skeptic of American involvement in Iraq and Syria to a champion of “destroying the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) militarily,” as he put it in a TIME op-ed this week. It's easy to imagine Cheney, who sparred with Paul over Iraq just months ago, cracking a smile as he read through the piece. While it may be an exaggeration to say the environment resembles the run-up to the 2003 Iraq War, it’s telling that prominent pro-war commentators from the time are making the comparison

The bigger problem for Republicans looking to exploit the burgeoning war fever might be differentiating themselves from Democrats. Virtually all of their opponents are saying the same things about ISIS and some have criticized Obama’s for not laying out a clearer strategy as well. Senator Mark Udall awkwardly warned against overreacting to ISIS by saying in a debate that “Steve Sotloff and James Foley would tell us, don’t be impulsive,” but when it comes to the policy, both he and his opponent Cory Gardner support airstrikes against the group. One badly constructed sentence aside, everything Obama is doing -- striking ISIS targets, gathering regional allies, pledging to destroy and not just contain the threat -- is mostly in line with what his Republican critics have demanded. 

Ironically, the partisan sniping over Obama’s “strategy” quote might help the president secure authorization from Congress for the White House’s plan to roll back ISIS gains. Some Republicans are already positioning coming votes on the issue as a way to force Obama to commit to a strategy rather than, as was the case with the 2013 Syria vote, a capitulation to White House demands. It’s always easier to round up GOP votes for measures that can be billed as a victory over Obama instead of a partnership with him. In any case, it’s not clear Congress will bother with votes at all before the election.

In general, gravity seems to be pulling all sides involved, from voters to candidates, towards a rough consensus: Yes to airstrikes, no to ground troops (which CNN found 61% of voters oppose), and maybe on strikes within Syria. Without an obvious disagreement or a major new development in the conflict, this dynamic seems likely to suck the oxygen out of the political debate before November arrives.