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Trump’s Approach To Iran Highlights Both Parties’ Internal Divides

President Trump’s decision to authorize a drone strike that killed Iranian military leader Qassem Soleimani near the Baghdad airport last week has reignited broader questions about both the role of the United States in the Middle East and how and when the U.S. should use military force. And the reactions to the strike among elected Republicans and Democrats show divides not only between the two parties but within the parties as well — at least at the level of elites, and potentially among Republican voters.

For the last three years, splits in the GOP have mostly revolved around Trump’s brand of conservatism (his emphasis on issues like immigration and regular attacks on institutions such as the judiciary and the press) and how much the party should adhere to Trump’s approach. But even congressional Republicans who often criticize the president, such as Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, are largely praising (or at least not criticizing) his decision to authorize the attack.

FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast: How the Iran conflict could affect the 2020 electio

Instead, the prominent Republican criticism of the military strike so far has come largely from two people: Fox News’ Tucker Carlson and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul. You might reasonably ask why it’s worth highlighting Republican opposition to the Trump strike if we can only cite two people. Two reasons: First, Carlson matters. (Yes, perhaps more than a sitting senator.) Trump is reportedly a regular viewer of Carlson’s show, and some of Trump’s tweets suggest he’s repeating ideas that he saw on Carlson’s show. The president also reportedly talks privately with Carlson about policy on occasion. And Carlson, with a prime-time show on Fox News, reaches more than 2 million people daily, giving him real clout in conservative circles.

Secondly, Carlson and Paul may be representative of a broader and very important group: Republican voters wary of the U.S. getting too entangled in conflicts abroad. Remember, Trump, in his 2016 primary campaign, distinguished himself from others in the party, particularly former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, by strongly criticizing the Iraq War. It’s not clear whether that criticism played a big role in motivating Republicans to choose Trump over other candidates. (In contrast, there is fairly strong evidence that Trump’s positions on immigration helped him win votes in the primary). But a Pew Research Center poll conducted during the 2016 Republican primary found that Trump supporters were more likely than other GOP voters to say that “the U.S. does too much to solve world problems.” On the other hand, a clear majority of Trump supporters (70 percent) were in favor of the U.S. deploying ground troops to fight ISIS, putting them in line with the non-Trump Republicans (66 percent of whom favored ground troops) on that issue and suggesting that Trump’s base isn’t overly opposed to military intervention.

Still, it is likely that there is a bloc of pro-Trump Republican voters who don’t want the U.S. to get into a protracted conflict with Iran. The debate over Iran policy has, unsurprisingly, been connected to the Iraq War ever since the U.S. went into Iraq in 2003, and you can see evidence of GOP attitudes in polling on that issue. According to a March 2018 Pew poll, for example, 61 percent of Republicans thought using military force in Iraq was a good decision, which leaves about 40 percent of the GOP who either thought it was a bad decision or weren’t sure either way. (Among all Americans, 48 percent thought it was a bad decision.) According to the same survey, about half of Republicans disagreed with the statement that the U.S. “mostly succeeded” in Iraq. In terms of Iran itself, a Morning Consult poll conducted last year after Iran shot down an American drone found that 59 percent of Republicans supported further military action against Iran, 22 percent opposed it, and 19 percent were not sure.

If Trump started aggressively campaigning for an extended conflict with Iran, I suspect that Republican support for it would go up. Voters sometimes follow the opinions of leaders of their party and other political elites. Two recent polls conducted by YouGov have shown that an overwhelming majority of Republicans approved of the strike (73 percent in a YouGov poll released on Friday, 84 percent in a HuffPost/YouGov poll released on Monday). I expect other polls will find an overwhelming majority of Republicans in favor of the killing, largely because Trump and most key officials in the party are strongly behind it. (I doubt most Republicans — or Americans overall — knew Soleimani’s name before his death. I did not. So I assume voters are taking their cues from elites on this issue.)

That said, there will likely be a number of Republican voters — though still a clear minority — who will be wary of a war with Iran (beyond the targeted killing of a specific individual) even if Trump is pushing for it. (Remember, there was a bloc of GOP voters who never got behind separating children from their families at the border or the Obamacare repeal, even as Trump stood behind both policies.) And the presence (or even potential presence) of an anti-Iran-war bloc of Republicans is really important: It might constrain how aggressive Trump is in taking on Iran if he knows a segment in his party is wary of significant U.S. military action there.

For Democrats, the divide is more clear and predictable: It’s another version of the left vs. center-left fissure we’ve seen manifest itself throughout the party’s 2020 presidential primary. Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, along with other more liberal figures in the party, are describing the killing of Soleimani as an “assassination”; urging lawmakers to pass legislation that would block funding for any further military action against Iran without a formal authorization from Congress; and connecting this killing to U.S. foreign policy more broadly, arguing that the U.S. should take a more limited approach to military interventions. Former Vice President Joe Biden and more center-left figures in the party have not echoed the assassination language, and instead have been more focused on this particular strike — was it the right decision and did Trump fail to sufficiently involve Congress, either through a vote or by at least briefing key members before the strike?

The broader context for this debate is that Sanders opposed the Iraq War at the start and has long been skeptical of U.S. military interventions abroad. Biden voted for the Iraq War initially, and he and other center-left figures in the party generally haven’t been as wary of deploying the U.S. military to other countries.

I’m not sure this divide will really apply to Democratic voters — my bet would be that polls show they largely oppose the strike, following the comments of their party’s leaders and reflecting their broader concerns about Trump. (Seventy-one percent of Democrats opposed the strike, while 14 percent supported it and 15 percent were not sure, according to the HuffPost/YouGov survey. That high-but-not-unanimous opposition — it’s lower than Democratic support for removing Trump from office, for example — suggests Democrats are hearing the conflicting signals from party leaders that I described above.)

Even if Democratic voters aren’t necessarily tuned in to these divides, they matter. Foreign policy is another area where Sanders and Warren in particular are essentially proposing a break with Obama-era policies, Biden and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg would likely govern more like Obama, and Democatic voters will be making a choice between these two approaches over the next few months.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.