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Foreign Policy and the 2008 Election

- January 13, 2009

p. Robert Saldin has written a wonderfully concise piece discussing the importance of foreign policy in presidential elections in his contribution to The Forum. He has noted the ways in which foreign policy has played a role in a number of congressional and presidential election seasons over the past century, and he has made a strong case that Iraq was central to producing the Democratic and Republican nominees in 2008. If we count trade as a foreign policy issue, global affairs takes on even greater significance in our national elections.

p. I would add to Saldin’s excellent discussion that even if economic issues carry the day, nominees have to convince the public that they meet a minimum threshold for serving as commander-in-chief. That’s why even in 1992, an election won on “the economy, stupid,” Bill Clinton gave foreign policy speeches. And it is something Barack Obama clearly understood was important in 2008.

p. In addition to what Saldin has nicely done, it’s worth also remembering that not only do foreign affairs have an impact on elections, but elections are important for foreign affairs. I don’t mean this simply in the usual sense that a different winner might have conducted foreign policy differently (and I’m sure we can have lengthy conversation on Al Gore and Iraq), but how candidates lay the groundwork for how they will govern. Bill Clinton signaled throughout 1991-92 that free trade and democracy promotion would emerge as issues important to his presidency, and the seeds of what he did during his eight years in office were planted during the campaign, even if he himself wasn’t planning on becoming a foreign policy president.

p. What we saw in 2008 will be important going forward: a Democrat with no foreign policy or military experience was unafraid to go toe-to-toe with a war hero. We should expect to see an Obama administration try to position the Democratic Party as a national security party for the first time in decades. Appointing General James Jones as national security adviser, keeping Robert Gates on as secretary of defense, and putting General Eric Shinseki in charge of Veteran Affairs will help lay the ground work for this strategy. Hillary Clinton developed a good relationship with the military through her work on Armed Services. Michelle Obama has declared that assisting military families will be a major priority for her. National security Democrats who populated institutions such as the Center for a New American Security will take leading positions in the new administration. These are Democrats who want to shed the party’s image as anti-military and soft on national security, and the debacles of the past eight years give them the opportunity to do so.

p. Republicans tried to paint Democrats in 2008 as untrustworthy on national security as they have been doing in national elections since Vietnam. It didn’t get John McCain the votes he needed, not because foreign policy wasn’t important, but because the charge just didn’t stick. Watch for Obama to do all sorts of things to ensure that this Republican ploy has no better chance of succeeding next time.