President Obama’s long overdue policy shift toward Cuba is the kind of change that many who voted for him in 2008 had hoped the President would make. It was also clever politics. It is not only a popular foreign policy decision, but it is one that will help likely 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. Ironically, given the history of tension between Ms. Clinton and Mr. Obama, and more notably between their supporters, the fates of these two giants of today’s Democratic Party are deeply linked. Ms. Clinton’s presidential campaign will be much more difficult if, by the last half of 2016, Mr. Obama is widely viewed as a failed President. Similarly, if a Democrat is elected in 2016, it will be measure of the President’s legacy.
The decision to reopen ties with Cuba also reflects well on his first Secretary of State. Ms. Clinton had previously called for ending the embargo and normalizing relations with Cuba; and during her tenure ay Foggy Bottom, helped build the foundation for historic policy shift. Ms. Clinton has spent much of the last few months trying to separate herself from Mr. Obama’s foreign policies, the Cuba announcement gives her an opportunity to claim some credit for one of the President’s accomplishments. Moreover, because the election is so rapidly approaching, it would foolish for Mr. Obama, or his supporters, to try to deny this to Ms. Clinton.
The shift in Cuba policy is significant, but it is far from being the most important foreign policy question facing the U.S. The fight against ISIS and the Russian presence in Ukraine are the more immediate and important foreign policy questions facing the country. President Obama’s handling of both these issues damaged the Democratic Party, benefitting Republicans last November. The new Cuba policy changes the perception that the President bungles foreign policy. Cuba is close; the policy change is very easy to understand; and media coverage of Cuba ranging from beaches to baseball will likely continue for at least a few months.
This will put the Republican Party in a difficult position. They can continue to oppose the decision, as most of the party’s leaders have done so far. This, however, will give more credence to the Democratic charge that Republicans are more interesting in thwarting Mr. Obama than in governing wisely. A long debate in Congress about lifting the embargo, even if the Republicans win that debate and the embargo is kept in place, hurts the party.
If stopping President Obama’s efforts to normalize relations with Cuba becomes a top Republican priority over the next months, it will maintain a focus on an issue that has little resonance outside of some parts of the Republican base. It also will take attention away from thornier foreign policy issues, including Russia and Syria. Any smart Republican candidate would rather spend time persuading voters that Mr. Obama has failed in Iraq and Syria, rather than explaining why Americans shouldn’t be allowed to go to Havana or bring home some Cuban cigars.
The strongest opponent of Mr. Obama’s new Cuba policy has been Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida. Mr. Rubio, a Cuban-American, bitterly criticized Mr. Obama. But he really speaks for only one faction of Cuban-Americans, a demographic with waning influence. The Republican Party should not allow Mr. Runio to control its Cuba policy. There is already some tension within the Republican Party, most notably between Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) and Mr. Rubio, regarding Cuba.
The wise thing for the Republican Party leadership in the Senate would be to allow Mr. Rubio to make as much noise as he wants on this question, but not to let Cuba policy dominate the next Congress. If, however, the party allows Mr. Rubio to lead them down the blind alley of fighting to continue the embargo, Hillary Clinton will Mambo in celebration.
Lincoln Mitchell is domestic political correspondent at the Observer. Follow him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell