War absent from US midterm elections
Nov 3, 2010

War absent from US midterm elections

With the US midterm elections now come and gone, it is interesting to note the topic that was largely absent from the election narratives: the wars. There are many reasons why war ought to be an important issue for voters but because it is currently one of the few areas of bipartisan support, it is left out as an election issue.

Let us briefly recall why we ought to care. The US is in two long and protracted wars which, particularly in the Afghanistan case, are widely acknowledged as going very badly. The recent Wikileaks Iraq files that follow the Afghanistan ones of last summer are an unprecedented and historic leak that reinforces these negative perspectives on how the wars are going and how they are being handled. The backlash and potential terrorist threat on Americans is arguably higher than ever. The death toll remains high and the financial costs - in a time where budget deficit is among the largest election issues - are simply staggering. So there is good reason why people should care.

Furthermore, it should be acknowledged that war as a campaign issue can be an extremely galvanizing force. It isn't being ignored because it doesn't determine elections in general. It was the force that propelled more than anything the democrats into power in 2008 and the key issue I think that led to Barack Obama and not Hillary Clinton being president (ie, their past voting records on the Iraq war). Since it is an issue that people should care about and matters, and an issue that has the capacity to determine elections, why then was it so ignored?

The single largest reason is simply that both sides have a fairly unified message at the moment with regards to war. They can't have a credible public disagreement over an issue they are agreeing on. Obama's creeping disengagement policy from Iraq is more or less identical to what McCain advocated. Obama increased the engagement in Afghanistan by 30k troops. Thus the democrats simply can't credibly run on an anti-war platform, regardless of how effective such a campaign might be if they were not culpable. Nor can the republicans bring this up as they engaged in the two wars in the first place and they can't even make claims about managing it differently since approving military ways and means bills has been one of the few areas of bipartisan support. This offers a fairly good example of how issues that are outside the partisan divide simply don't become prevalent in the media dialogue.

There are several other factors that come into play as well. The seriousness of the economy (amplified to no end by the media) has resulted in a shift in priorities towards domestic issues from foreign issues. However, given how this election has conflated the economy with the deficit and how cutting military expenditure is one of the easiest with little additional negative consequences to cut the deficit, this factor cannot be the dominant one. Secondly, this is a midterm election and not a presidential one. Compared to most other issues, the president has disproportionally more power when it comes to the military and so it naturally less important during election times. That said, in issues where congress is in defiance of Obama (such as preventing Guantanamo from being closed, very much bipartisan in the senate) they still don't get discussed despite widespread public support for closing Guantanamo.

War is an issue that is too important to be ignored. If we are going to maintain a liberal interventionist paradigm for military engagement we have a moral imperative to maintain a legitimate national conversation about it. Yet in the most important forum for such conversations, elections, it was sadly absent.

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