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Kicking off the 2012 GOP Contest

Interviewee: James M. Lindsay, Senior Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair, Council on Foreign Relations
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
December 30, 2011

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The Iowa caucuses and three primaries are set to kick off the presidential campaign season in January. James M. Lindsay, CFR's top political analyst, says on foreign policy, that other than Ron Paul who is strongly non-interventionist, Republican candidates "occupy the same space" as internationalists with the aim of questioning President Barack Obama's abilities as commander in chief. "There are probably differences of degree among those candidates, and while they clearly argue that they would produce a better foreign policy than Barack Obama, it's not clear just how different their foreign policy would be," Lindsay says. He goes on to note that campaigning is not the same as governing. "We can get some sense from campaigns about how candidates think about the world, what they see as issues and what have you, but it's by no means a reliable guide to what they would actually do once in office."

Presidential campaigning becomes serious next week with the Iowa caucuses, and is followed by three primaries. How much do these opening primaries matter?

Much is going to depend upon what happens in the first event in Iowa, and whether or not Romney has a strong showing. If Romney wins, or is only narrowly beaten by Ron Paul, it's likely he will be able to go on and do very well in New Hampshire and probably perform strongly in South Carolina. But if Romney doesn't come in one or two in Iowa, or if one of the [more] conservative candidates—Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, or Michele Bachmann—does unexpectedly well, that could set up the potential for a showdown between Romney and that conservative candidate in South Carolina come January 21.

All of the candidates are going all out in Iowa because they realize it stands to be a pivotal event, not because the winner of the Iowa caucuses is guaranteed the nomination. Anything but. Just ask Governor Mike Huckabee in 2008, or George H.W. Bush in 1980, or Bob Dole in 1988. Clearly the candidates understand that there's a winnowing process that goes on in Iowa, and that's the way Newt Gingrich is approaching it. He had a big surge in December, which is good, but it's always better to have a big surge in January. Gingrich's numbers have trailed off, and the question for him is going to be, can he stop the slide in his support and edge out Romney?

There are probably differences of degree among those candidates, and while they clearly argue that they would produce a better foreign policy than Barack Obama, it's not clear just how different their foreign policy would be.

The country is focused on economic issues, but where do these Republican candidates stand on foreign policy issues. If Romney should win, would his views on foreign policy be much different than Gingrich's or, say, Ron Paul's?

When we look at the Republican candidates, there is a big split between Ron Paul and everyone else. Ron Paul backs a traditional, non-interventionist foreign policy, which essentially argues that the way to maximize American security is to do less abroad, because when we get involved overseas, we end up becoming part of other people's battles, other people's conflicts, and making things worse for ourselves. So in that sense he is unique among the Republican candidates, and it's quite clear that his Republican rivals are trying to focus on that difference and chip away at the support that Ron has in Iowa. Gingrich has said this week that he couldn't support Ron Paul because of his foreign policy views, which the Speaker dismissed as being totally out of the mainstream.

When we look at the other candidates, at least in terms of rhetoric--and that's really all we have to go on right now--they're all occupying the same space. They're active internationalists. They want the United States to be involved overseas. They've all pounded the table about the dangers posed by Iran. They've all said they would keep the military option on the table. There are probably differences of degree among those candidates, and while they clearly argue that they would produce a better foreign policy than Barack Obama, it's not clear just how different their foreign policy would be.

One thing always to keep in mind in campaigns, as we listen to what candidates say about what they will do, is that campaigning is not governing. Campaigning is about making promises. Governing is about making choices. We can get some sense from campaigns about how candidates think about the world, what they see as issues and what have you, but it's by no means a reliable guide to what they would actually do once in office.

The American public seems happy the last troops were pulled out of Iraq, and I gather there's really very little popular support for the ongoing war in Afghanistan. But you say Republican candidates would want to do more in Afghanistan?

On the campaign trail they're saying they would do more. What choices they would make if they were to succeed in getting to the Oval Office I don't know. I would not assume because they talk tough on the campaign trail, that they would be equally tough in office. [On] Afghanistan or Pakistan—once you're in the White House, there are numerous constraints one has to face. There are tradeoffs, opportunity costs that have to be weighed.

But clearly, when we talk about the specific issue of Afghanistan, the Republican candidate--with the exception of Ron Paul, who clearly wants troops to come home or Jon Huntsman, who wants to substantially scale down the mission--have essentially argued for maintaining the commitment in Afghanistan and have criticized the president for drawing down more rapidly than his commanders have recommended.

Now, in some cases the differences are small. You have, for example, Mitt Romney criticizing the president for wanting to have a drawdown begin in September as opposed to December, a ninety-day difference, which probably doesn't seem terrible huge to most voters. But again, part of what the Republican candidates are trying to do by attacking Obama on Afghanistan, or Iraq, or Iran, is first to force the president to play defense in foreign policy and to explain what he's doing. Beyond that [they are trying] to paint a narrative that fits into a broader questioning of whether the president has the capabilities and skills to successfully be commander in chief. It's all about questioning his leadership, his judgment, his choices.

One thing always to keep in mind in campaigns, as we listen to what candidates say about what they will do, is that campaigning is not governing. Campaigning is about making promises. Governing is about making choices.

And of course Israel always is an election issue. There's some thought that some Jewish voters, particularly those of a conservative bent, are unhappy with Obama because the Israeli government is unhappy with Obama. Do you think that this will play out in the Jewish vote?

Certainly a number of Republican strategists have suggested that 2012 represents an opportunity for Republicans to make substantial inroads into the Jewish American vote, but perhaps even more important than that, to make inroads in persuading wealthy Jewish Americans to contribute to Republican candidates. We'll see how that goes. In terms of simple number of votes cast, Jewish Americans have voted overwhelmingly for Democrats for many, many years and we're probably not likely to see a huge swing in that because Jewish Americans are a diverse group, vote for lots of different reasons, not just what the incumbent government in Israel thinks of the incumbent government in the United States. So that may go up or down. The other thing is that Jewish American voters, while they are significant in certain districts or constituencies, are in the grand scheme of American politics very small. Only about 2 percent of Americans are Jewish, so it's not likely to be in the grand scheme of things determinative of the election outcome.

Which of these Republican candidates is likely to give President Obama a real run for the money?

The conventional wisdom is that Romney would give Obama the strongest run because he is the candidate that is most likely to appeal to the independent voter. The election in 2012 is likely to turn on the ability of the Republican and Democratic candidates to appeal to that middle-of-the-road voter in about eight or nine states that are really up for grabs. But the problem for Romney is that the very set of attributes that makes him appealing to middle-of-the-road voters—namely that he appears to be a moderate—are the same attributes that make him not appealing, or unappealing, to many conservative Republicans. This is why in Iowa the [more] conservative candidates are all hoping to be the one able to get social and fiscal conservatives behind them and use that down the road, particularly in South Carolina, to mount a credible challenge to what everyone assumes is Romney's frontrunner status.

A Gallup poll shows that both Romney and Gingrich would tie Obama right now if either of them was running against Obama.

I would not put a lot of weight on those polls for a couple of reasons. One, we are a long way out from November. Most Americans aren't going to start thinking about the candidates long and hard until we get to the summer, so there's a lot that can happen between now and then. The second thing to keep in mind is that a lot of these polls that pair presidents against their rivals are done nationally on the assumption that that reflects the broad body politic. But the reality is that presidents win not in the popular vote, but the Electoral College. If you look at the fifty states, right now we can say we know how about forty of those states are going to turn out, whether they're going to vote Democrat or Republican. I can guarantee you, whoever the Republican nominee is, he or she will win Texas, and I can guarantee that Barack Obama will win Massachusetts. It's really just those states that are in play, like Ohio and Pennsylvania, that are really going to matter, and that's where a lot of the campaigning is going to be focused.

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