Doug Kriner: All Politics – And Particularly Congressional Politics – Are Local

Douglas Kriner offers this overview of his article (co-authored with Francis Shen), “Responding to War on Capitol Hill: Battlefield Casualties, Congressional Response, and Public Support for the War in Iraq,” which just appeared in the January 2014 issue of the AJPS: In August 2013, President Obama shocked many when he announced that he would first go to Congress before ordering American military strikes against Syria for President Assad’s use of chemical weapons against civilians.  Obama did not believe, as some have speculated, that he lacked the constitutional authority to act alone; indeed, in the very same speech he plainly argued that as Commander in Chief he did not need Congress’ permission to enforce his “red line.”  Rather, Obama’s decision reminds us that even though Congress no longer declares war or uses the power of the purse to curb presidential wars, its public reaction to military ventures is politically quite important.  President Obama, who built his political career in part based on his vocal opposition to the Iraq War while in the Senate, is perhaps more sensitive to this than many of his predecessors.  Congressional criticism, even when not backed by legislative action, can impose serious political costs. How do members of Congress decide whether and when to criticize the president and his conduct of military affairs during the course of a war?  Surely, members of Congress respond to events as they unfold on foreign battlefields.  However, different members often have a variety of responses to the same events.  Consider American casualties – the most salient and publicly visible costs of war.  For members of the opposition party, spikes in casualties often trigger bouts of vocal criticism of the president and his management of the war.  The president’s co-partisans on Capitol Hill, by contrast, often remain silent, betting that their political fortunes are best served by standing with their partisan leader even in the face of a war’s mounting costs.  However, as Tip O’Neill famously proclaimed, all politics – and particularly congressional politics – are local.  When soldiers from their narrow geographic constituencies fall on foreign battlefields, members of Congress of all partisan stripes become more vocally critical of the president and his war policies.  We find strong evidence of both of these dynamics in a comprehensive analysis of more than 7,500 speeches given on the House floor concerning the war in Iraq from 2003 through 2010. But do the positions taken in Congress actually affect the American public’s willingness to back a war?  After all, the contemporary Congress sports an approval rating mired in the single digits.  Yet, as Richard Fenno noted decades ago, Americans routinely express their disapproval of Congress, even as they enthusiastically return their own member to Congress.  We find that members who repeatedly and vociferously criticized the Iraq War affected the opinions of their constituents.  Specifically, Americans with a local representative who was sharply and publicly critical of the Iraq War were significantly more likely to judge the war a mistake and support withdrawing American forces.  This suggests that members of Congress can raise the political costs of military action for the president by swaying public opinion against a war, even when they cannot pass legislation forcing the president to abandon his preferred course of action.

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