President-elect Donald Trump continues to dispute the consensus of U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia used computer hacking to interfere in the 2016 elections. He does so even though other Republican leaders and analysts perceive a serious cyberattack that demands retaliation.
If he persists in this posture, Trump may wish to rely on the precedent of previous presidents who entered the White House at odds with their own parties over a major issue in foreign relations.
But can he find one?
That’s a tough question. In recent decades, presidents have come to the Oval Office in something very much like lockstep with their parties regarding relations with Russia and other familiar adversaries.
Presidents whose parties had their backs
Ronald Reagan, the predecessor Trump likes to cite as a model, came to office largely on a vow to get tough with Russia — then still the Soviet Union and making aggressive moves on several fronts (1981). In this stance, Reagan had the overwhelming support of his own party and from many Democrats as well.
In fact, Reagan’s predecessor, Democrat Jimmy Carter, had canceled U.S. participation in the 1980 Olympics in Moscow to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Reagan’s successor, George H.W. Bush, in 1989 continued the pressure on the Soviets and was in office to see that regime replaced by a semblance of democracy in Russia. His term included the fall of the Berlin Wall and other symbols of what was long called “the Red Menace.”
The first President Bush did go to war, however, after Iraq invaded its neighbor Kuwait in 1990. But he had the backing of Congress, including nearly all of his own party and many Democrats as well.
Foreign policy was not a big priority for President Bill Clinton, either as a candidate in 1992 or as a first-term president, but he had the backing of his Democratic troops when issues did arise, including the brief Kosovo War in the Balkans in 1999.
George W. Bush took the oath in 2001 at a time when foreign policy was on a back burner in Washington. The terror attacks of that September changed all that, and Bush had the backing of both his own Republicans and most Democrats in sending troops to attack al-Qaida in Afghanistan. Republicans were also strongly behind Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, as were some (but by no means all) Democrats.
After those wars had become quagmires, Barack Obama arrived in 2009 with a promise to recalibrate the “War on Terror,” especially by winding down the U.S. presence in Iraq. His party was very much on board for this, although some differences on the details emerged over time. His desire for a “reset” with Russia reflected the desire of Democrats generally to lessen global tensions and concentrate on domestic issues.
A common enemy
Finding a precedent for Trump’s party schism does not get any easier looking at the decades right after World War II. Although the Soviets were a major U.S. ally in that conflict, tensions began immediately over the postwar map of Europe and the Soviets’ intensive covert campaign to steal secrets for a nuclear weapon. The tensions came to be known as the Cold War, and extended soon to the Communist regime that took over China in the late 1940s.
In the presidential politics of the Cold War era, candidates in both major parties vied to be the most outspoken in their anti-communism. Republican Dwight Eisenhower was elected in 1952 vowing to “go to Korea” to meet and defeat communist aggression there; his former running mate Richard Nixon won in 1968 while uniting his party around his “secret plan” to end the war in Vietnam. Both had solid backing from Republicans across the board.
Democrat John F. Kennedy rallied his partisans in 1960 to close “the missile gap” he said we had with the Soviets, and his former vice president, Lyndon Johnson, campaigned on his determination to stop communism in Southeast Asia in 1964 (after Congress, dominated by Democrats, gave him carte blanche to do so).
Returning to the era between the first and second world wars, it is difficult to find much daylight between a newly elected president and his party on a foreign policy issue. Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover had few real disagreements with their Republican backers. Like them, Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected with a unified party preoccupied with the economy and social issues.
In fact, if you plow your way through the rest of American history, you will be hard-pressed to find presidents preparing their first inaugural addresses while engaging in a highly public dispute with their own party over the behavior of a foreign adversary.
As a rule, international affairs have mattered to a new president when a foreign threat — real or perceived — has united that president’s party in support.
No one expects a president-elect to agree with his own party’s leaders on every issue. It would be especially surprising if that were the case with Trump, who entered the contest for the Republican nomination as an outsider and conducted his campaign largely on personal terms.
Nonetheless, Trump and the GOP adapted to each other with notable success in the endgame of the 2016. Former rivals such as Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, and leaders who had refused to stump with Trump (including Ryan) expressed their intention to vote for him. In the end, even most of the GOP voters who had reservations about Trump came home on Election Day and voted a party ticket.
They did it knowing there would be disagreements down the road. But they might not have expected them to come before the new president had even been sworn in.