Americans Care A Lot About National Security, But Will They Vote On It?

January 6, 2016

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The holidays are behind us. 2015 is in the rearview. Iowa is less than a month away. It’s time for candidates to start refining their closing arguments to caucus-goers in that state and primary voters in New Hampshire and beyond. So, what does that mean for national security issues?

GOP candidates going all in on national security

Voters have made clear in poll after poll that national security is a top concern. So it’s no surprise that candidates continue to talk about it — especially candidates from the GOP, which typically runs more strongly on national security issues. NPR’s Mara Liasson gave a quick rundown of how Republicans are playing the politics of national security as the race is set to enter the actual voting stage. In sum, she says, “the theme is pretty clear. The world is on fire, and it’s all President Obama’s and Hillary Clinton’s fault.” Furthermore, “it has the added value of uniting the Establishment and Grassroots Conservative wings of the GOP,” offering a rare piece of common ground in the intra-party schism that has been on full display this cycle.

Let’s get specific … or not

But while candidates are all too happy to talk about national security, the military, and foreign policy, don’t expect to get much in the way of details. As Leo Shane III notes in a piece for The Military Times, candidates have seen Lindsey Graham talk extensively and in detailed fashion about how to confront a range of security challenges — and fail to gain enough traction to see his candidacy into 2016. Meanwhile, Donald Trump issues the vague promise to “make our military so big, so strong and so great, so powerful that we’re never going to have to use it” — and has remained at the top of polls. According to New America’s Heather Hurlburt, that indicates something very important: “People don’t actually seem to vote on national security,” even if they consistently note it as the most important issue. “Graham didn’t have a ‘Make America Great Again’ message. Instead, he was talking troop totals and war plans. It’s just not in the candidates’ interests to be too specific.”

Weighing in on North Korea’s claimed H-bomb test

So North Korea claims to have tested a hydrogen bomb (although what type of detonation actually occurred remains unknown). Candidates have, of course, been asked about it in subsequent media interviews, and others have taken to social media to offer their views. The GOP field has been quick to claim it as yet another failure of the Obama (and Clinton) foreign policy. Here’s a sampling of what they’re saying, from CNN:

Donald Trump says we should lean on China to solve North Korea issues: “China has total control, believe me, they say they don’t, they have total control over North Korea, and China should solve that problem, and if they don’t solve the problem, we should make trade very difficult with China.”

Rand Paul said it’s an indicator of ideological failure: “The one thing we have in our favor is that socialism is an abysmal failure.”

Marco Rubio blamed Obama: “I have been warning throughout this campaign that North Korea is run by a lunatic who has been expanding his nuclear arsenal while President Obama stood idly by.”

Jeb Bush agreed, and looped Clinton into the argument, as well: The test “shows [the] danger of continuing [the] feckless Obama/Clinton foreign policy.” Bush also said, “it’s an example of a withdrawn America in the world,” and called for re-imposing sanctions.

Carly Fiorina left Obama out and went straight after Clinton: “Of course North Korea would conduct a nuclear test after watching Iran willfully violate an agreement they just made without consequence of any kind from this administration. North Korea is yet another Hillary Clinton foreign policy failure. America cannot lead from behind.”

Rubio on the attack — against everyone

One of the interesting questions each campaign has to answer at this stage of the race is whether to focus attacks on opponents for the party nomination or candidates from the other party. It usually leads to some mix, with frontrunners leaning toward attacking potential general election opponents and those trailing in polls going after the frontrunners. This election cycle, with so many Republicans remaining and the field and GOP electorate split between so-called grassroots and establishment conservatives, has yielded even more complex strategies. The most striking example is Marco Rubio. In a recent speech on national security, he hit out on multiple fronts: against the conservative GOP frontrunners, Donald Trump (“If you can’t be bothered to offer specifics on how you will perform that job [of commander-in-chief], then you don’t deserve that job.”) and Ted Cruz (“Words and political stunts cannot ensure our security. ISIS cannot be filibustered.”); and against the likely Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton (“Not only is Hillary Clinton incompetent, she’s also a liar. … She lied to our faces” about Benghazi). And all of this is separate from his ongoing feud with Chris Christie, a potential competitor for the mantle of GOP establishment candidate.

Which party is responsible for ISIL’s rise?

Last weekend, Donald Trump claimed that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton “created ISIS.” While that argument, like most of Trump’s, will be scoffed at or embraced with equal vigor depending on one’s views of the candidate, it does point to a unique set of circumstances surrounding the issue, as Peter Bergen notes at CNN. Typically, a candidate from the incumbent’s party will defend that incumbent’s actions (as a matter of political necessity, if not conviction), and opponents will attack them. And yet because of the links between terrorism in the region today and the U.S.-led war in Iraq, both parties have ready-made arguments that will resonate with voters. Democrats will blame the war in Iraq for the group’s rise (and Hillary Clinton will hope that reminders of her early support for the war doesn’t hurt her too much), seeking to tie the ISIL albatross around the GOP’s collective neck. Republicans will point to the hasty troop withdrawal from that country made under Obama, arguing that it was a decision made with ideological blinders on and which set the stage for the terrorist group. How will it work out for each side? Stay tuned.

Seven questions about the military for each candidate

Want to know how each candidate will make use of the military and how he or she will deal with veterans issues? Ask these seven questions, says Marine Corps vet Justin Constantine in the Huffington Post, and you’ll learn everything you need to know. Getting them to offer substantive answers, though, might be a bigger challenge.

2016’s first political ads: “Terrorists are coming to get you”

The new year has brought with it a wave of new political ads. And the theme, writes Daniel Strauss for Politico, couldn’t be most stark — “Terrorists are coming to get you.” A sampling: “An ad from the main super PAC supporting Ted Cruz warned that Islamic radicals are ‘plotting to kill Americans,’ then attacked Sen. Marco Rubio, a regular sparring partner of Cruz’s, for his past calls to accept Syrian refugees. Jeb Bush unveiled an ad featuring the candidate saying ‘serious times call for serious leadership’ in between clips of Islamic State fighters in combat. Rick Santorum’s campaign attacked Cruz for reading Dr. Seuss’ ‘Green Eggs and Ham’ on the Senate floor, suggesting the Texas senator lacks the gravitas to be commander in chief.”

Sec. Clinton’s intel came from NPR

In case you were busy celebrating on New Year’s Eve and missed the most recently released batch of Hillary Clinton’s emails, Jessica Taylor has captured some of the more entertaining highlights for NPR. Among them is an email chain that appears to be deliberating on whether to issue a State Department travel warning. Clinton leaned against it: “I only know what I hear on NPR from various experts and none sounds so dire.”


John Amble is managing editor of War on the Rocks.


Photo credit: Gage Skidmore