National Conventions and U.S. Foreign Policy
from Campaign 2012

National Conventions and U.S. Foreign Policy

U.S. presidential nominating conventions often touch on national security and foreign policy, but don’t always signal the direction of a winning candidate’s policy, explains this Backgrounder.

August 23, 2012 12:39 pm (EST)

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U.S. presidential nominating conventions occur every four years, with delegates from each state gathering in the summer before the election to formally declare a party’s candidate. They tend to focus heavily on domestic issues. However, foreign policy and national security issues are usually part of the parties’ platforms and in some years have dominated conventions, notably the 1968 Democratic Party gathering in Chicago and the Democratic and Republican party conventions in 2004. Foreign policy platforms tend to offer a mix of candidate views and issues of interest to specific elements within the party. A number of experts say modern conventions are more about party unity than formulating policy.

Does foreign policy play a role in conventions?

Due to the president’s role as commander-in-chief of military forces, national security themes have resonated through many conventions, in speeches by leading political party figures or in the party platform documents released during such gatherings. However, a number of experts say domestic issues are more prominent than foreign policy issues in most U.S. presidential campaigns. "It’s a secondary issue in elections because it is a secondary issue with most voters," says CFR Director of Studies James M. Lindsay.

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Yet Stephen Hess, an expert in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, notes instances when the nation was at war or facing other obvious security challenges and conventions echoed those concerns. "It has to do with the moment in time," says Hess.

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Timeline: Political Conventions and Foreign Policy

The 1968 Democratic Party convention in Chicago took place amid widely publicized protests against the Vietnam War. The Democratic Johnson administration had been grappling with the aftermath of the Tet Offensive. The party platform, backed by candidate Hubert Humphrey, rejected a unilateral withdrawal of U.S. forces from Vietnam. But rival Democratic candidate Sen. Eugene McCarthy (D-MN) put forward a plank calling for ending bombing in North Vietnam and a negotiated withdrawal. The dispute proved divisive for the party.

"McCarthy was attacking the very heart of American global power--its over-ambition, its pretensions of global leadership, and its hyper-inflated view of American strength, interests, and capabilities," wrote Foreign Policy’s Michael Cohen in 2011, noting that there remains a fight within the party between hawks and doves.

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There have also been notable occasions, such as in 1980, when inter-party differences on foreign policy were sharply drawn. In the Democratic Party gathering in New York, President Jimmy Carter’s speech emphasized his commitment to peace and "American values." Carter touted his record on restoring defense spending, which he said had declined under Republicans, and he knocked the GOP for promising "to launch an all-out nuclear arms race" to confront the Soviet threat.

At the Republican Party nominating event in Detroit, candidate Ronald Reagan took to the podium with a convention speech that accused Carter of leaving America weaker and more vulnerable to outside threats. A June 2011 editorial in the Weekly Standard said the field of Republican presidential candidates could take a lesson from that speech. "Reagan’s unapologetic defense of American strength is as timely today as it was three decades ago," the editors wrote.

How do convention platforms get crafted?

A convention platform statement lists a political party’s chief issues and policy prescriptions. Drafts of platforms are crafted before the convention but can be amended before adoption, usually by the second day, according to the Congressional Research Service (PDF). "Platforms are intended to maintain the loyalty of committed party activists, while attracting the support and votes of political independents," the report says.

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A convention’s foreign policy platform is crafted by a subcommittee of delegates from states not "necessarily reflective of the party makeup in Washington," says Hess. However, campaign advisers are also on hand to give input or even help craft specific language, Hess says.

Lindsay says convention platform specifics reflect the desires of "highly motivated constituents" within the party but are written in a way that does not offend the party’s core. "Any party platform is going to be a mix of kisses and hugs for the party’s base and the candidate’s own philosophy and approach," he says.

In 1952, Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-WI) seems to have been one of those constituents. While then-Republican candidate Dwight Eisenhower was moderate, the party’s 1952 platform was written by McCarthy supporters, according to author Robert Griffith, and carried many hardline passages attempting to hammer the incumbent Democratic administration for failing to contain the threat of communism.

Eisenhower’s convention speech made no mention of war or the threat of communism. However, McCarthy’s speech at the convention took the issues head on.

Eisenhower later went on to serve a two-term presidency and his relationship with McCarthy grew contentious by 1954. Yet historian John Coffey says the campaign was a pivotal point in reshaping what had been a bipartisan approach following World War II to one in which Republicans made "national security a partisan electoral issue for a generation."

"Realizing that bipartisanship would not win elections, the GOP adopted a hawkish alternative to liberal internationalism, setting in motion an enduring political competition," Coffey wrote in American Diplomacy in 2010.

Do conventions signal the foreign policy of an incoming president?

Platforms do at times represent the policy wish lists of a candidate, but events of the day and the relationship with Congress often play larger roles in determining policy. Despite incumbent Woodrow Wilson’s 1916 campaign to keep the country out of World War I, the United States became a combatant in 1917. Wilson also pushed through controversial laws on espionage and sedition to muzzle opinions against the war.

In 1960, the platform of Democrats and John F. Kennedy pledged to prevent "the establishment of a regime dominated by international, atheistic Communism in the Western Hemisphere." Four months into Kennedy’s presidency, the CIA backed a failed coup attempt by Cuban nationals to overthrow Castro in what became known as the Bay of Pigs Invasion. But the CIA’s plan did not originate with Kennedy; it was actually masterminded during the Eisenhower administration.

How significant are convention speeches on foreign policy?

Keynote speeches have sometimes raised foreign policy concerns to the forefront of national debate. Some of the most memorable include:

1896: Bryan’s Cross of Gold. Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan opposed the gold standard and gave a rousing convention speech arguing in favor of silver coinage seen as a much needed injection into the economy by its backers, which mostly comprised small businesses and farmers in the West and South (USNews).The speech is considered significant for solidifying Bryan’s nomination bid and for calling attention to what has become a regular theme of U.S. campaigns: the battle over moneyed interests versus small businesses. "Having behind us the producing masses of this nation and the world, supported by the commercial interests, the laboring interests, and the toilers everywhere, we will answer their demand for a gold standard by saying to them: You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold," Bryan said.

1920: Harding on Return to Normalcy. Republican Party nominee Warren G. Harding ran on a platform for "a return to normalcy" for the post-war economy and spurning membership in the League of Nations. The speech was a rejection of Wilson’s economic and internationalist policies and contained themes that continue to resonate with conservatives (NationalReview). "It will avail nothing to discuss in detail the League Covenant, which was conceived for world super-government, negotiated in misunderstanding, and intolerantly urged and demanded by its administration sponsors, who resisted every effort to safeguard America, and who finally rejected it when such safeguards were inserted," Harding said in his speech.

1952: McCarthy on Communism. The Wisconsin senator made a name for himself as an anti-communist crusader. "[W]e have allowed Communism to spread its dark shadow over half of Europe, and almost all of Asia, and for the first time, for the first time they are appearing on the pages of America’s history," McCarthy said.

1980: Reagan on Security. The 1980 convention speech is one of several memorable speeches on foreign policy given by a president known for his strong stance on defense and his tremendous nuclear buildup. "We are awed--and rightly so--by the forces of destruction at loose in the world in this nuclear era. But neither can we be naive or foolish," Reagan said. "We must always stand ready to negotiate in good faith, ready to pursue any reasonable avenue that holds forth the promise of lessening tensions and furthering the prospects of peace. But let our friends and those who may wish us ill take note: the United States has an obligation to its citizens and to the people of the world never to let those who would destroy freedom dictate the future course of human life on this planet."


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