For a guy who was supposed to be mired in unpopularity and bored with his job, Barack Obama is sure making life hard for Republicans, not to mention complicating their task in winning the White House in 2016. The Republican reaction to his decision to normalize relations with Cuba may have been exactly what everyone expected, but it shows just how trapped those who want to get the GOP presidential nomination are. They’re snared by the past, by the need to oppose everything that Obama does, and by what we might consider the base of their base — older voters for whom Cold War antagonisms still feel fresh, even as the rest of the country is leaving them behind.
Every Republican contender who found himself facing a microphone yesterday condemned the decision to normalize relations, none more so than Marco Rubio, who appeared on over a dozen TV programs to condemn it. While there’s no doubt that Rubio’s position is sincere (he’s the child of Cuban immigrants), consider what position you’d be in if you were a GOP contender who actually thought this move was overdue. While both parties have supported the embargo and a policy of unceasing antagonism toward the Castro regime for decades, your party held that belief particularly close to its heart. In order to win the nomination, you’re going to need the support of lots of older voters. For them, the Cold War defined their political coming-of-age and most of their lives. Vigorous anti-communism was at the core of what it meant to be a conservative, along with support for low taxes, small government, and traditional social values. Their kids and grandkids may see opposition to communism as an issue that’s in the past, but it’s still important to the way those older voters think about the world.
This means that while some Republican politicians (like Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona) may support normalizing relations, if you want to get the GOP presidential nomination, it just isn’t an option. And that’s despite the fact that not only is normalization supported by a majority of Americans, but also in some polls even a majority of Republicans support it, or if not a majority then nearly so. For instance, in this 2009 Gallup poll (they haven’t asked recently), 42 percent of Republicans supported re-establishing diplomatic relations, 44 percent supported ending the trade embargo, and 57 percent supported ending travel restrictions. Or look at this poll from the bipartisan Atlantic Council earlier this year:
As on many other issues, the passage of time and the change of generations make a move away from the traditional Republican position all but inevitable. Even a majority of Cuban-Americans in Florida now support ending the embargo. In the time period in which so many Republicans still live psychologically — the 1980s, when Reagan was president, we knew who our enemies were, and everything was going great — such a thing would have been inconceivable. It’s happening because the children and grandchildren of those who fled Castro’s regime don’t have the same intense feelings that the immigrant generation had, and they don’t see what continuing Cuba’s isolation will accomplish.
Despite these changes in the broader population and among Republican voters in particular, a candidate seeking the presidential nomination can’t take the risk of alienating the older voters who will play such a key role in the GOP primaries. And by bringing the issue to the front pages and the top of the policy agenda, Barack Obama has forced them to loudly take a position that will hurt whoever the nominee is in the general election. Not bad for a lame duck.