Hail to the Chief

Republicans haven’t just rejected President Obama. They have adopted Benjamin Netanyahu as their leader.

Obama and Netanyahu.

Hail to which chief? President Obama listens as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks in the White House in Washington, D.C., on May 18, 2009.

Photo by Larry Downing/Reuters

Last month, at the unilateral invitation of Republicans, and against the will of a Democratic president, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed a joint session of Congress. He argued for a foreign policy that matched the views of congressional Republicans, not the views of the U.S. administration. Many people, including me, were taken aback by this overt alliance between the U.S. opposition party and the prime minister of another country. But a Bloomberg Politics poll released this week shows that the alliance is deeply rooted. Republicans haven’t just rejected Obama. They have adopted Netanyahu as their leader.

I’m not just talking about Republicans in Congress. I’m talking about the Republicans surveyed in the poll. “Recently, there have been clashes between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Obama,” the Bloomberg questionnaire noted. It asked: “Are you more sympathetic to Netanyahu or Obama?” Democrats, by a margin of 76 percent to 9 percent, said they were more sympathetic to Obama. Independents, far more narrowly, also sided with Obama. But Republicans, by a margin of 67 percent to 16 percent, said they were more sympathetic to Netanyahu.

This difference isn’t confined to Netanyahu’s speech in Congress or the subject on which he focused, the proposed nuclear agreement with Iran. When Bloomberg asked respondents to choose between two views of the U.S.-Israel relationship, 64 percent of Democrats chose this one: “Israel is an ally but we should pursue America’s interests when we disagree with them.” Republicans, by a margin of 67 percent to 30 percent, chose the alternative view: “Israel is an important ally, the only democracy in the region, and we should support it even if our interests diverge.” On this question, independents narrowly agreed with the Republican view, 48 percent to 44 percent.

The latter question, with its appeals to “democracy” and “support,” gave respondents a bit of a tug toward the pro-Israel view. Still, it’s remarkable that half the sample, and a 2-to-1 majority of Republicans, said we should stand with another country even when it’s not in our national interest.

Look up other polls, and you’ll see further signs of division. Two weeks ago ABC News and the Washington Post published a survey with two questions back to back. The first question asked, “Do you approve or disapprove of the way Obama is handling U.S. relations with Israel?” Democrats expressed approval, 66 percent to 21 percent. Republicans expressed disapproval, 86 percent to 8 percent. The second question was: “Do you approve or disapprove of the way Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is handling Israel’s relations with the United States?” Democrats disapproved of Netanyahu’s behavior, 58 percent to 21 percent. But Republicans approved of it, 59 percent to 21 percent. Overwhelmingly, Republicans preferred the Israeli prime minister to the American president.

In February, Gallup asked Americans for their views of Obama and Netanyahu. Eighty-six percent of Democrats viewed Obama favorably. Only 16 percent of Republicans did. For Netanyahu, the numbers were reversed: While Democrats were evenly divided—31 percent viewed Netanyahu favorably, 31 percent viewed him unfavorably—Republicans judged the prime minister favorably by a margin of 60 percent to 18 percent. They embraced the Israeli leader, not the American one. A Pew survey found a similar pattern. When Gallup repeated its question in March, just after Netanyahu’s speech to Congress, the poll found that Democrats had shifted against the prime minister. They now viewed him unfavorably, 46 percent to 17 percent. But Republicans viewed him even more favorably than before, 62 percent to 16 percent.

As far as I can tell, this partisan split in favor of a foreign leader is unprecedented. I’ve looked for other cases in which members of one American political party, in contrast with the other party, preferred a foreign head of state to their own president. I can’t find one. My first thought was Tony Blair, the former British Labor prime minister. He’s the leader I embraced when I supported the Iraq war and didn’t trust George W. Bush. But Blair’s support for the war is one reason why he was a darling of the American right, not the left. Gallup’s surveys show that Republicans consistently viewed Blair more favorably than Democrats did.

Another plausible candidate is Nelson Mandela. His tenure as president of South Africa overlapped with Bill Clinton’s presidency, so Democrats never faced a direct comparison between Mandela and a Republican president. But even if you go back to 1990, when Mandela was touring the United States just after his release from prison, his favorable rating in this country was only 58 percent, according to a Boston Globe survey. It was probably about the same among Democrats, since, according to the Globe’s published data, Mandela’s favorable rating was 50 percent among Republicans and 65 percent among independents. But in the same poll, President George H.W. Bush’s approval rating was 78 percent. So mathematically, it’s almost impossible that more Democrats expressed a favorable opinion of Mandela than of Bush.

Even if you go back to the late 1980s, when Ronald Reagan was president and Mikhail Gorbachev was leading the Soviet Union out of the Cold War, you can’t find a partisan gap in American admiration for Gorbachev. In the United States, the Soviet president had stratospheric approval ratings, climbing from 63 percent in 1986 to 81 percent in 1990—higher than Reagan’s. But Fred Steeper, the Republican pollster who supervised the 1990 survey—and who had worked for President Bush’s 1988 campaign—found no partisan or ideological pattern in the data. “There was almost no difference between Democrats and Republicans,” he reported.

So the Obama-Netanyahu situation has no clear precedent. How did it happen? Where will it lead? One possibility is that the United States has never had such a divisive president. There’s some evidence for this, but Gallup’s data show similar partisan gaps in support for George W. Bush. Another possibility is that no other foreign country has ever had such a magnetic head of state for American audiences. But that isn’t right, because Gorbachev’s favorable ratings were higher than Netanyahu’s, even among Republicans. A third explanation is that no foreign leader has ever courted one American political party, while antagonizing the other party, more aggressively than Netanyahu.

These explanations can account to some degree for the gap in favorability ratings between Obama and Netanyahu. But they can’t account for the partisan split in responses to Bloomberg’s second question, the one about Israeli versus American interests. That split points to a more fundamental challenge. Does a majority of the Republican Party identify more with Israeli interests than with American interests? When Israel’s prime minister speaks on the floor of Congress, do Republicans feel more allegiance to him than to their president? If so, will the feeling subside once Obama leaves office? Or does it signify an enduring rift in the fabric of this country?