President Donald Trump ordered the killing of Iranian military leader Qassem Soleimani, and it was rightfully treated as a big deal. But as with breaking news of any size and scope, it’s best to pause before determining the political fallout.
While most of the subsequent conversation revolves around potential future military conflict, retaliatory attacks, the president’s standing, the reaction from Democrats and the role of Congress in the use of force, the biggest impact could actually be in the battle for the Senate majority.
Obviously, the situation is still developing, but here are some initial thoughts on the political ramifications of Trump’s decision.
Nothing matters, until proven otherwise
The media tends to treat every news event as a game-changer, when there should be the opposite instinct. Through all the twists and turns of 2019, Trump’s job approval rating was virtually the same at the beginning and end of the year. It was 43 percent approve/52 percent disapprove on Jan. 1 compared with 44 percent approve/52 percent disapprove on Dec. 30, according to the RealClearPolitics national polling average.
In terms of political handicapping, Soleimani’s death should be treated as an insignificant event until future polling shows a fundamental shift in opinion about Trump or the Democrats running against him. It’s more likely that it reinforces previous opinion about the president, since that’s what everything else has done. Overall, this is not a new dynamic. I made the same point earlier in the impeachment process and will make it again.
The biggest political impact could be on the fight for the Senate
Some Republican strategists view U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as the party’s savior to hold the open Senate seat in Kansas. There’s probably no perfect time for one of the country’s top diplomats to leave his post, but Soleimani’s death and potential for subsequent escalation seems like a particularly bad time for a Pompeo exit.
Republicans have candidates in the race, but Rep. Roger Marshall hasn’t inspired confidence from all GOPers, and there’s some growing concern that former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach will win the nomination. That would take an otherwise Solid Republican race and make it much more vulnerable and competitive, increasing Democratic chances of winning Senate control.
In Marshall’s defense, Pompeo looming over the race has frozen Republican donors outside Kansas. And now there may not be a final Pompeo resolution for another few weeks or couple of months. If Pompeo waits until closer to the June 1 filing deadline and decides to run, he should win without a struggle. But if Pompeo draws out a final decision and declines to run, that would delay anti-Kobach forces from consolidating. The primary is Aug. 4.
Incumbents and challengers in other competitive Senate races are also trying to navigate the situation, as explained by CQ Roll Call’s Bridget Bowman.
Republicans can’t count on a typical rally-’round-the-flag effect
It’s pretty clear Trump is seeking credit and praise for taking out a longtime adversary of the United States. And there’s precedent of presidents gaining popularity during times of international crisis, such as President George W. Bush in the aftermath of 9/11. But it’s very unclear whether Trump will benefit from the same phenomenon.
Quite simply, Trump is not like any other president. Whereas other presidents have benefited from positive economic conditions or military victories over known enemies, Trump does not receive the same level of credit because of his personal style and other actions.
Democrats who might agree with the outcomes either disagree with the means or prioritize other presidential actions that they don’t like. Most Democrats believe anything positive that happens in this country happens in spite of the president, not because of him.
The political climate could change depending on retaliatory attacks from Iran (particularly whether they take place overseas or domestically), whether the president decides to break long-standing rules of war, and the size and duration of U.S. military action overseas. The bigger the force, the more likely individual Americans are directly connected to the conflict.
For now, the situation is obviously very fluid with the potential to affect thousands of lives, but not necessarily with large political consequences.