From Iowa to New Hampshire: National Security on the Campaign Trail

February 4, 2016

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And then there were eleven

The Iowa caucuses have thinned the herd of remaining presidential candidates. We’re down to an official one-on-one contest for the Democratic nomination, and down to single digits on the GOP side. Martin O’Malley, Mike Huckabee, Rand Paul, and Rick Santorum are all out. With all eyes on New Hampshire, how are the politics of national security playing out in New England?

Sanders on foreign policy: Meh

According to Sen. Claire McCaskill, it isn’t just that Bernie Sanders doesn’t have experience on foreign policy or that he doesn’t know much about it. It’s also that he just doesn’t care all that much. And that will inevitably hurt him if he were to win the nomination. “He doesn’t have experience and hasn’t shown a great deal of interest in foreign policy, hasn’t really demonstrated the breadth and depth of knowledge you need to lead this country at a dangerous time,” McCaskill says. “As we get closer to November, people begin to visualize who is going to be the commander-in-chief, who is going to stand for us in a dangerous and complicated world.”

But does it matter? That’s not as strange a question as you might think, argues Max Fisher at Vox. “It is true that Sanders has ducked and avoided what are conventionally considered even the bare minimum requirements for proving competence on foreign policy. But … it seems to me that the process by which we demand a candidate prove his or her foreign policy credentials is sort of artificial and silly, that Sanders has made a debatable but at least potentially rational tactical decision to sidestep that process, and that this really only tells us so much about how a Sanders administration would conduct foreign policy. … I am not prepared to write off Sanders on foreign policy, and I don’t think my peers in the media or elsewhere should write him off yet either.”

To the extent that Sanders does make foreign policy an issue, it’s all about the 2002 Iraq War vote — specifically his own vote against it and Hillary Clinton’s vote in favor. His intent is simple enough to discern: paint Clinton as a GOP-like hawk. Combined with her (comparatively) aggressive positions on ISIL and her role in the 2011 Libya intervention, it shouldn’t be too difficult to appeal to the large segment of the Democratic base presumed to be hesitant about military action. As Conor Friedersdorf sees it, though, much of the Democratic establishment simply doesn’t care. Writing for the Atlantic, he explains why war has become an afterthought in the Democratic primary.

The Democratic divide

Clinton and Sanders reached a late deal to put together a debate in New Hampshire tonight. The first time the two will go head-to-head on stage also comes at a time when the party is as divided as it has been in years. Expect Sanders to double-down on his message that the most consequential foreign policy decision of the past generation left Clinton on the wrong side of history. Expect Clinton to hammer on Sanders’ unpreparedness for the serious role of commander-in-chief. And expect both to have little impact on voters’ assessments of either candidate.

Not so much for the GOP

On the GOP side, the departure of Rand Paul has left the remaining slate of candidates comparatively much more unified, as Molly O’Toole explains at Foreign Policy. “[Paul’s] exit leaves the Republican field without one of its only counterpoints to beefing up U.S. military spending and deepening its engagement in Iraq and Syria against the Islamic State. Though it didn’t secure him sustainable support — he finished a disappointing fifth in Monday night’s Iowa caucus — it at least challenged a hawkish consensus that has made candidates virtually indistinguishable on national security issues from government surveillance to counterterrorism tactics.”

But just because their positions are largely similar doesn’t mean that candidates can’t still say some head-scratching things when talking foreign policy. Over at Quartz, Daniel R. DePetris takes a look at what he says are three of the worst proposals made by GOP candidates.

Radio (and TV) silence on national security

The field of candidates (and super PACs) spent a combined $70 million on advertising in Iowa. Now, the cash is pouring into New Hampshire (and Boston) media markets. With national security and foreign policy more important in this election cycle than it has been in years, clearly some of that money is going toward ads that explain candidates’ positions on a range of foreign policy challenges, right? No? Well at least the candidates are going after each other on the airwaves, arguing about who is most (and least) prepared to meet those challenges, right? Nope. Here’s a list of recent ad buys. No talk about ISIL, Russia, Iran, terrorism, the military, or even U.S. leadership in the world.

Bush (lightly) commends Obama: Cue outrage

President Obama made his first visit to a mosque in the United States this week, giving an address at the Islamic Society of Baltimore. He said he was seeking to rebut the “inexcusable political rhetoric against Muslim-Americans” coming from particular GOP candidates for the White House. Jeb Bush has long been critical of the divisive rhetoric of GOP frontrunner Donald Trump. So naturally, when asked about Obama’s mosque visit by radio host Hugh Hewitt, he replied, “I think it’s important for the president to lead in this regard. … I’m not quite sure he avoided doing this, but it was appropriate to do it. And sometimes, you have to give someone credit for a job well done. I haven’t seen the speech, but it’s important.” Not exactly fawning praise, but sufficient to drive commenters at conservative website Breitbart into something of a frenzy.

Bernie’s foreign policy advisory “team”

When asked by reporters who his foreign policy advisors are, Bernie Sanders typically changes the subject. On Sunday on CNN, host Jake Tapper pressed him on the question. After first dismissing it by saying that he had been “talking in the last month to, you know, many, many, many people who are very knowledgeable about national security issues and foreign policy issues.” Pressed harder, Sanders named a single individual. “Larry Korb is one. Larry Korb — who, actually, I think, worked in the Reagan administration — is somebody we have consulted with.”

But here’s the thing. Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, told Politico that he’s only spoken to Sanders once, and he couldn’t even recall with certainty when that was (he said it was “probably” in December).

More of Clinton’s “damn emails!”

The issue that won’t go away — in part because of the requirement to release a new batch of emails each month, and in part because those emails actually contain things that could be potentially damaging to Clinton’s White House aspirations. Recently, reports emerged that 22 of the emails will be classified top secret. Now it appears the total will rise to 29. And government officials who have reviewed them say that some of the emails on her server contained “indirect references to undercover CIA officers.”

Sanders has walked back his statement from last fall that “people are sick and tired of hearing about [Clinton’s] damn emails.” But he still doesn’t appear eager to politicize the issue. That certainly won’t be the case with Republicans if Clinton emerges as the Democratic nominee.

Beyond the presidential campaign trail

The battle for congressional seats is heating up, as well. And national security is already starting to play a role.

Democrats are starting to worry about their weaknesses on security issues, as Lauren French notes in Politico. “Rep. Steve Israel, the New York lawmaker charged with campaign messaging for House Democrats, told colleagues during a closed-door briefing last week that Democrats poll significantly behind Republicans on national security — by as much as 23 percentage points.”

On the Senate side, Jennifer Rubin writes in the Washington Post that Democrats are increasingly divided over one issue in particular: the Iran deal. And that could offer an opportunity for Republicans. Ian Prior of Republican super PAC American Crossroads foreshadowed the likely GOP line of attack: “The Iran issue is going to hurt Senate Democrats for two very glaring reasons. First, the Clinton-Obama doctrine of appeasement towards Iran is going to have a toxic effect on Democrats up and down the ticket. Second, even Democrats who may hold their noses and vote for Hillary are going to want a check against a professional liar like Hillary. This does not bode well for down ballot Democrats that have indicated that they will be rubber stamps for the White House, especially on issues of national security.”

The GOP has its own weaknesses, though. Congressional Republicans represent a sort of do-nothing majority, says Steve Benen at “When it comes to talking about national security, congressional Republicans are ready and willing. When it comes to doing actual work, however, the GOP lawmakers who have all kinds of things to say seem to struggle with follow-through.”

Senate Republicans, in particular, will also face attacks on both national security and veterans issues., a progressive veterans group has begun running its first ad of this election cycle, targeting Wisconsin Republican Sen. Ron Johnson. The group’s chairman told National Journal, “There’s a gap for Democrats on security across the board. We’re going to have to play on security, and we’re prepared to.”


John Amble is managing editor of War on the Rocks.


Photo credit: Gage Skidmore