One of the most important indicators of a healthy democracy is responsiveness, or how carefully political leaders acknowledge the preferences of a majority of voters and work to implement these preferences. When a particular politician proves reluctant to support policies overwhelmingly approved by the populace at large, a responsive system provides a credible alternative capable of fulfilling these wishes. But as the near-identical positions of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney on the Afghan War make clear, American democracy is hardly a model of good health.
An Associated Press GfK poll conducted earlier this month revealed that support for our ill-fated adventure in Afghanistan has sunk to an all-time low. A measly 27 percent of Americans now believe President Obama’s “good war” remains a good idea. This includes only 19 percent of the president’s own party, 27 percent of independents and, shockingly, just 37 percent of Republicans. In fact, opposition to the Afghan War receives more bipartisan support than any other issue by far, and this in what is already proving to be a bitterly divisive election year. The president, however, remains quietly but stubbornly opposed to any troop reduction before the tentatively scheduled drawdown sometime in 2014. Great news for the president’s challenger, now presented with a golden opportunity to rally Americans of all stripes behind an anti-war banner. Right?
If only. Mitt Romney’s greatest challenge concerning Afghanistan seems to be distinguishing his own position on the war from that of his opponent. While acknowledging that the 2014 deadline for withdrawal may be appropriate, he goes one step further than President Obama by insisting that even this late date is subject to change. Should commanders on the ground recommend an enduring presence beyond 2014 to ensure that the mission is completed, Romney promises to give the generals more time. Ignored by both candidates are a full two-thirds of Americans who believe not only that the mission will never be completed, but that there is no longer even a clear mission in the first place. What could induce these men, who are desperately wooing voters with wild promises on the economic and social fronts, to casually disregard the American people’s war weariness after almost 11 years of uninterrupted conflict?
As the embattled incumbent, President Obama likely feels restrained by his policy failures of the past four years. The economy continues to stagger along at an anemic pace, a myriad of White House budget and policy proposals have gone down in flames in the face of bipartisan congressional opposition and his signature achievement of healthcare reform is unpopular and likely unconstitutional. Not much of a record to run on. Yet despite all this, his leadership in the effort to kill Osama bin Laden and his abundant use of drone strikes on suspected terrorists in Pakistan remain very popular among voters.
Ironically for a man who ran an anti-war campaign just four years previously, Obama is now trying to distinguish himself as the national security candidate in 2012. Going wobbly on Afghanistan would undermine this carefully crafted image, a risk the president is hesitant to take given his lack of success in other arenas. Should his campaign prove successful in November, he will certainly have “more flexibility” on the issue after the election. It is possible that the president, whom many view as reflexively anti-war, will up the withdrawal date to earlier than 2014 once the danger of re-election has passed. But no one is holding their breath.
Mitt Romney’s position on the war is more predictable. A greater number of Republicans (though still a distinct minority) support America’s continuing involvement in the Central Asian quagmire. More significantly, the former governor requires vast amounts of cash to feed his ravenous campaign and catch up to Obama’s unprecedented haul of donations in the past few months. He can hardly risk alienating big-donor hawks, who traditionally contribute overwhelmingly to the Republican nominee and likely remain some of the staunchest supporters of the Afghan War. With a professed expertise in economics and seemingly little interest in the foreign policy game, Romney seems content to play it safe and stick to the status quo, even if most of the rank-and-file of his party disagrees.
All of these conditions and caveats should mean nothing to either of the candidates in the face of such overwhelming opposition to our continued presence in Central Asia. Yet neither Obama nor Romney have had to reevaluate their stance on Afghanistan for one simple reason – voters are not making them. The most recent Rasmussen poll on the significance of campaign issues, conducted in late February of this year, shows that of ten key issues, the economy, health care, government corruption and taxes are far and beyond the most important in the minds of likely voters. Afghanistan ranks dead last, nearly 25 percentage points behind the next least-important issue. The immense economic problems besetting the nation affect the lives of every single American. By contrast, outside the increasingly isolated culture of our military and their families, the distance and obscurity of the Afghan War allows it to be easily forgotten.
The blame for the noticeable lack of democratic responsiveness in today’s body politic lies not with Barack Obama or Mitt Romney, but with us. If Americans cannot muster the courage to stand by their convictions and hold our elected officials accountable for wasteful and destructive policies, the worthless death and devastation may well continue into 2014 and beyond. In the last two presidential elections, war was a central campaign issue. This time, voters only worry about Afghanistan when they’re forced to. Can we expect our politicians to behave any differently?