With his announcement that the United States will open negotiations and try to normalize relations with Cuba, President Barack Obama is trying to break the hold of the Cuba lobby once and for all.
In historical terms, that’s a remarkable undertaking. For decades, U.S. policy toward Cuba has been guided by the smart, effective lobbying of a relatively small group of interested Cuban Americans, mostly in Miami. The Cuba lobby’s success has reflected a deep truth of American politics: where there’s a concentrated interest on one side of an issue, and only a diffuse interest on the other, the concentrated interest wins.
Will it work? If so, why now? And what are the implications for other concentrated lobbying groups, such as the National Rifle Association and the pro-Israel lobby, which have themselves succeeded by following a version of the approach that the Cuba lobby pioneered?
Begin with an incontrovertible fact: Obama’s opening to Raul Castro’s regime is precisely what the Cuba lobby has long feared and opposed. Its two leading voices in the Senate, New Jersey Democrat Robert Menendez and Florida Republican Marco Rubio, immediately condemned Obama’s apparent swap of three convicted Cuban spies for convicted American Alan Gross and another unnamed American held on espionage charges in Cuba.
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Since the end of the Cold War, independent foreign policy experts have argued that U.S. interests would be served by opening relations with Cuba. Once communism no longer needed to be contained or combated on a global scale, the reasoning runs, the U.S. would gain in trade with Cuba. Indeed, the infusion of capital and tourism into Cuba that would come with an end to U.S. sanctions would further weaken the socialism that still exists there.
Yet despite the broad consensus in foreign policy circles, U.S. policy until now hasn’t really changed – and the reason has been the effectiveness of the anti-Castro Cuba lobby. The explanation isn’t that there are so many Cuban Americans: There are about 2 million, of whom some 70 percent live in Florida. To complicate matters further, not all Cuban Americans support a strong policy of nonengagement with the island.
The reason for the lobby’s success has been the discipline with which it pursued its agenda. A handful of politicians receive extensive support from the lobby, and their views, unsurprisingly, correspond closely to the Cuban Americans who support them. Other politicians may receive occasional support, but the lobby is not focused on them. The key to the operation is that on the other side, there is no concentrated interest group at all advocating for the normalization of relations with Cuba.
If this model of advocacy sounds familiar, it should. The same basic structure explains the success of the National Rifle Association and the pro-Israel lobby exemplified by AIPAC. None of these organizations is breaking the rules. To the contrary, their success reflects the basic structure of U.S. politics. Those who support gun rights care deeply about the issue: They’re the essence of a concentrated lobby. Those who would regulate guns are almost by definition more diffuse. The pro-Israel lobby succeeds not primarily because of its financial capacity or disproportionate cultural influence, but because there is no concentrated pro-Palestinian lobby of any real size in the U.S.
Why does Obama think he can beat the Cuba lobby now? The accidental political configuration of the moment provides the best explanation. His executive action on immigration reform has given the president – and probably the Democratic Party – a big boost among Latinos. He won’t be running for re-election, and House Democrats will be vulnerable for another two years. As for Hillary Clinton, if she faces Jeb Bush in the 2016 presidential campaign, she will probably have to find a path to victory that doesn’t involve winning Florida, Bush’s home state. This all frees up Obama and the Democrats to take a crack at the Cuba lobby.
But the game won’t be over with the opening of negotiations, which the president can do on his own. Restoring full diplomatic relations and ending the embargo will require Congress’s assent. Here the lobby can be expected to go into full concentrated opposition mode – and it has some chance of success.
What Obama must be hoping is that groups with a passing interest in the opening to Cuba will get on the bandwagon just long enough to counterbalance the power of the lobby and get the necessary legislation passed.
The risk that Obama carries in taking on a concentrated lobby isn’t totally unfamiliar to him. After all, he tried to take on the NRA by pushing gun control after the Newtown shootings. When he lost, the political cost to him was much less than the cost of doing nothing.
With the end of his presidency in view, Obama has to take risks if he wants to score some legacy points. His gamble on Cuba may not be fully realized. But the results will have implications for the structure of American interest group politics more broadly.
Noah Feldman, a Bloomberg View columnist, is a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard University.