Obama, Cuba and the GOP

Obama, Cuba and the GOP

By Hastings Wyman –

President Obama is making a mockery of the old notion that in the last two years of his second term, the nation’s chief executive is a lame duck. In a series of unilateral moves that don’t require the cooperation of a hostile Congress, the President is using his executive powers to make his mark on the nation’s policies and its politics. He is also, intentionally or otherwise, influencing the political alignment within the Republican Party.

The President has, with the stroke of a pen, saved some 5 million undocumented aliens from the threat of deportation, imposed more stringent controls on the use of coal as an energy source in this country, and struck an historic agreement with China to reduce carbon emissions. He has spoken out on racial injustice and his Administration may yet intervene meaningfully in the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases, as his Justice Department has already done in Cleveland.

But probably the most dramatic shift in policy has come in the President’s decision to grant diplomatic recognition to Cuba, a Communist dictatorship 90 miles distant from our shores that the US has attempted to isolate for some half a century.

The President’s initiative on Cuba showed not only that he wants to take this country in a new, more liberal direction, but that he exercised wily political skills while doing so. By coupling diplomatic recognition of the Castro regime with the release of Alan Gross, an American wrongly held in a Havana prison for five years, much of the media focus was on the personal story of an American getting free, rather than on the oppressive policies of the Cuban government. Moreover, in a move that could temper any opposition from US Catholics, who have long been hostile to Communist governments, Obama gave credit to Pope Francis as one of the key catalysts for the change in our relations with Cuba.

Whether the President’s recognition of Cuba will significantly modify the Castro regime is far from certain. Nevertheless, the first lesson to be drawn from Obama’s Cuban move is that he is continuing to move skillfully and unilaterally toward becoming the activist president he promised he would be in his 2008 campaign. Although this would seem to run counter to his need to cooperate with the Republican majorities in Congress, it may counter-intuitively strengthen his hand, not because his actions are so popular, but because they are showing that somebody in Washington is getting something done, not just stone-walling and kicking the can down the road.

In addition, Obama’s Cuban move has the perhaps unintentional potential to influence Republican intra-party politics. Most prominent GOPers have spoken out against the President’s recognition of the Castro regime, but at least one likely presidential candidate, US Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), has praised the move. The embargo “hasn’t worked,” said Paul, adding that “Probably, it punishes the people more than the regime because the regime can blame the embargo for hardship.”

Paul, long an outspoken maverick within his party, has so far used his willingness to draw outside the lines to his advantage, especially in foreign policy, where he has advocated less reliance on military force. He has also taken a libertarian approach to criminal justice, opposing prison terms for victimless drug-related crimes. He was one of the few Republican leaders to speak sympathetically about Michael Brown and Eric Garner. (Most just kept silent.) Thus, his support for diplomatic recognition of Cuba, while it may offend some conservatives, is of a piece with his past actions and may appeal to younger voters and independents. If he can add these groups to his long-standing supporters in the Tea Party, he may well be formidable in the 2016 race.

But conservative opposition to Obama’s move has been swift and strong. US Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), son of Cuban émigrés, shot back at Paul, “The embargo is not what’s hurting the Cuban people, it’s the lack of freedom and the lack of competent leaders.” An even more likely presidential candidate, former Gov. Jeb Bush (R), took an equally strong stand against recognition. “Cuba is a dictatorship with a disastrous human rights record, and now President Obama has rewarded those dictators,” Bush said. But even among Florida’s Cubans, opinion is shifting away from past US policies toward the Castro government, so the future role of the issue isn’t clear.

In any case, Obama’s recognition of Cuba is further evidence that we will have a much more activist President Obama than we’ve seen so far, an activism which could increase his popularity and strengthen his hand with Congress. And look for a hard fought battle within the GOP between the Old Guard and the Insurgents, not just over Cuba but over a range of issues. Stay tuned!