Will 2020 prove to be the exception to the rule that foreign policy generally takes a back seat when it comes to U.S. presidential elections? I’m generally a skeptic on that question. Perhaps because I have witnessed too many elections in which foreign policy was predicted to be pivotal and wasn’t. However, Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in security studies at the Cato Institute, has an article out this week arguing that “2020 is shaping‐up to be one of the few exceptions.” The reason? The coronavirus.
Carpenter’s argument in a nutshell is that “the coronavirus pandemic has emerged as a catalyst for greater public suspicions about Beijing’s behavior and motives.” President Donald Trump can in turn leverage this anger at the ballot box. His
decision in late January to greatly restrict travel from China places him in an excellent position to tout the importance of that move in preventing the coronavirus outbreak in the United States from being worse than it has been. Leading Democrats now assert that the Trump administration was slow to understand the seriousness of the emerging pandemic and develop adequate countermeasures (such as sufficient testing supplies and procedures). But their own reaction to Trump’s imposition of the China travel restrictions undercuts their argument. Biden and other major Democratic figures condemned Trump’s move as a manifestation of hysteria and xenophobia.
The result is that Trump can “go on the offensive,” even if his actual substantive policy achievements in dealing with China “may be meager.”
Carpenter is no doubt right that the Trump campaign intends to use the decision to restrict travel from China as an electoral pitch. The president regularly touts the wisdom of halting flights from China, and Italy as well, even if both decisions likely took place after the coronavirus began to take hold in the United States and, more important, failed to stop the pandemic. But identifying a campaign strategy is not the same thing as showing it will move votes.
The obvious counter to Carpenter’s argument is that the domestic economic and social effects of the pandemic will likely swamp its foreign policy aspects. No one knows precisely what the next seven months will bring, and we can hope that the pessimistic forecasts will prove wrong. At a minimum, though, the country faces rising unemployment, greater financial distress, a strained health-care system, and growing (and visible) inequities between rich and poor. Whether that will help or hurt Trump is an open question. A national calamity can rally the country around a president—think George W. Bush after September 11—or deeply damage one—think George W. Bush after Hurricane Katrina. Either way, problems here at home are likely to dominate the political conversation between now and Election Day.
The critical questions, of course, are whether Trump’s “tough” stance on China gets voters to the polls who otherwise would have sat at home, and whether it will change many minds. On the former question, there’s not much evidence that foreign policy drives up voter turnout. Despite the Vietnam War, for example, turnout in 1972 was lower than in 1968, which was in turn lower than in 1964. On the latter question, Trump’s stance on China has the strongest appeal among conservatives, as Carpenter notes. But they already intend to vote for the president. Given our deeply polarized politics, it’s not likely to move Democrats at all. The issue then becomes whether it changes the minds of true Independents. (Despite the name, most Independents vote fairly consistently with one party or the other.) Given all the other issues at play, along with myriad of ways the Democratic challenger can contest Trump’s handling of the pandemic and foreign policy more generally, those numbers are likely to be small.
Of course, in a hotly contested election even small changes in voter preferences can determine the outcome if they happen in the right battleground states. By that standard, though, every issue essentially becomes pivotal—and that hardly equates to calling 2020 a foreign policy election. And in that respect, November’s election isn’t likely to be exceptional.
The Candidates in Their Own Words
Bernie Sanders has been vocal in his calls for the Trump administration to temporarily suspend U.S. sanctions on Iran because of the coronavirus pandemic. Joe Biden began the week saying he was not ready to take a position on the issue. He told Meet the Press:
I don't have enough information about the situation in Iran right now. And I’m not sure there’s any evidence that—there's a lot of speculation from my foreign policy team that they're in real trouble and they're lying. But I would need more information to make that judgment. I don't have the national security information available.
That apparently changed. Yesterday Biden released a statement calling on the administration to relax the sanctions. He also urged Iran to release U.S. citizens it has detained.
Sanders highlighted the challenge that the coronavirus poses to Gaza as well. He tweeted on Sunday:
Palestinians in Gaza already faced hardship under a blockade. Now they're dealing with the coronavirus.— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) March 29, 2020
My Senate colleagues and I call on Trump to send U.S. medical relief. And the Israeli government must also lift its restrictions on humanitarian aid. https://t.co/WeLRY72KLq
Gaza is one of the most densely populated places in the world, and it’s clear that the virus transmits more easily in densely populated areas. Israel itself has more than 7,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19. It also has much better medical facilities than Gaza does.
Throughout history, authoritarian leaders have used moments of crisis to seize unchecked power. Hungary’s Orban is the latest example. Now more than ever we must stand up for democracy and rule of law. https://t.co/NWjKNPvGxp— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) March 30, 2020
Sadly, Orban is only one of many authoritarian-minded leaders looking to use the pandemic to tighten their hold on power.
What the Pundits Are Saying
Adham Sahloul, a former researcher at the Atlantic Council, and Shadi Hamid, senior fellow for Middle East policy at Brookings, explored the role that foreign policy plays in shaping the voting preferences of American Muslims. They note that despite the “democratic and ideological diversity” of the community, “like African Americans and Jews, Muslims are disproportionately Democrats.” They also note that “while Muslim voters prioritize the economy above all, foreign policy and national security mattered at least as much as health care, immigration and education policies.” Given how many American Muslims are immigrants, or the children of immigrants, it’s not surprising that they tend to be “biased toward ‘Motherland’ politics.” In that respect, they aren’t different from many of the immigrants who came from elsewhere around the world before them.
Fifteen states plus Puerto Rico have postponed their primaries because of the coronavirus. Wisconsin, however, still plans to go forward with its primary next Tuesday. Sanders has called for the state to postpone its vote. Wisconsin’s Democratic governor argues that the election has to go forward because it will decide who will hold a variety of state offices. Some of those terms start before a new vote can be held. So he is urging voters to cast absentee ballots. Meanwhile, Republican state lawmakers, who hold the majority in the Wisconsin state legislature, oppose both postponing the election and moving to an all-mail vote. A federal district court judge yesterday declined to order the election postponed, but extended absentee voting to April 13. An obvious question is how many Wisconsin voters will go to the polls and how many poll workers will be there to greet them. The governor has directed the Wisconsin National Guard to help carry out the vote.
Not much has changed on the delegate front with so many primaries being postponed. Biden still leads Sanders by more than three hundred delegates It takes 1,991 delegates to clinch the nomination on the first ballot.
The Democratic National Committee announced yesterday that it is pushing back the start of its national convention by a month. The convention will now start on Monday, August 17, or the week before the Republican National Convention. Milwaukee will remain the host city for Democrats. So there are 136 days until the planned start of the Democratic National Convention. The Republican National Convention begins in 143 days in Charlotte. Election Day is exactly seven months away.
Margaret Gach assisted in the preparation of this post.