from The Water's Edge

Campaign Foreign Policy Roundup: Foreign Policy Is AWOL

Two people in masks walk by a mural of the U.S. flag in Ocean Beach, California.
Two people in masks walk by a mural of the U.S. flag in Ocean Beach, California. Mike Blake/Reuters

Each Friday, I look at what is being said about foreign policy on the campaign trail. This week: For all of its surprises, 2020 is shaping up as a traditional campaign year in one important respect.

September 11, 2020

Two people in masks walk by a mural of the U.S. flag in Ocean Beach, California.
Two people in masks walk by a mural of the U.S. flag in Ocean Beach, California. Mike Blake/Reuters
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Today on the nineteenth anniversary of September 11 it is notable how little of the 2020 presidential campaign has been about foreign policy. It’s not just terrorism that has receded from the headlines. The same could be said about China, Russia, Iran, and a whole host of other issues.

To an extent, the fact that foreign policy has been AWOL on the campaign trail isn’t surprising. Domestic issues typically dominate presidential campaigns, and COVID-19 is perhaps the mother of all domestic issues. It has upended the economy, disrupted daily life, and exacerbated existing racial and social inequalities. Even so, it was only a few months ago that some experts were speculating that COVID-19 would catapult U.S. policy toward China to the forefront of the campaign and give Donald Trump a cudgel with which to beat Joe Biden. So far that hasn’t happened.

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This state of affairs seems to fit the public mood. A Pew survey of registered voters conducted this summer found that 57 percent of registered voters said that foreign policy was “very important” to them when voting. That sounds like an impressive figure, but 79 percent of respondents flagged the economy as “very important” and 68 percent flagged health care. Voters accord even less importance to specific foreign policy issues. Pew reported that just 42 percent of respondents said climate change was important to their vote, and it didn’t even bother to ask about terrorism.

Events could still elevate foreign policy in importance. There is no shortage of simmering crises that could suddenly remind Americans of their stake in what happens abroad. But for now, as unusual as 2020 has been, it is shaping up as a pretty traditional election year in at least one respect.

The Candidates in Their Own Words

Trump held a rally in Freeland, Michigan, last night. He spoke for seventy-five minutes and covered a wide range of topics. As is often the case at the president’s rallies, he frequently exaggerated his accomplishments. He summarized his indictment of Biden’s foreign policy views as follows:

Joe Biden devoted his career to offshoring Michigan’s jobs … outsourcing Michigan’s factories, throwing open your borders, dragging us into endless foreign wars, and surrendering our children’s future to China and other faraway lands. Biden supported every disastrous globalist sellout for over a half a century, including NAFTA, China, and TPP. You know that. Joe Biden surrendered your jobs to China, and now he wants to surrender our country to the violent left-wing mob, and you’re seeing that every night.

Trump’s appearance in Freeland came a day after Biden spoke in Warren, Michigan. The former vice president dismissed Trump’s claims to have brought overseas jobs back to Michigan:

So to recap, one, Trump hasn’t stopped companies from closing plants and sending jobs overseas. Two, he’s rewarded companies that have cut jobs and failed to invest here at home with billions of dollars in tax breaks. And three, he’s awarding more and more federal contracts to foreign companies. President Trump has broken just about every promise he’s ever made to the American worker. And he’s failed. He’s failed our economy and our country.

The Washington Post reports that Michigan has nearly 414,500 fewer jobs than it did when Trump was inaugurated. The Detroit Free Press reports that the number of manufacturing jobs in Michigan rose on Trump’s watch before COVID but at a far slower rate than during Barack Obama’s second term.

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What the Pundits Are Saying

With Trump’s foreign policy views both established and well-known, most campaign writing has focused on what a Biden administration’s foreign policy might look like. James Traub has written three pieces on that theme, profiling the former vice president’s overall approach to foreign policy, his views on China, and his likely approach to the Middle East. In a nutshell, Traub believes Biden finds his foreign policy inspiration in Harry Truman, has become a “hawk” on China, and will try to give the Middle East “no more attention than it deserves.” 

Edward Wong, Michael Crowley, and Ana Swanson explored how Biden’s views on China have changed over the last four decades. They see the former vice president as having journeyed “from wary optimism to condemnation” of China. 

Alex Ward reviewed how Biden is likely to tackle the top foreign-policy issues facing his presidency. He portrays the former vice president as “a creature of the American foreign policy machine” who is looking to restore a more traditional foreign policy.

Katie Bo Williams examined Kamala Harris’s views on America’s role in the world. She concludes that the Democratic vice-presidential nominee is “a bit of a mystery on foreign policy.”

USA Today’s Tom Vanden Brook contrasted Trump’s and Biden’s approaches to defense issues such as NATO, defense spending, and confronting China. 

Campaign Update 

RealClearPolitics’ average of national political polls shows Biden leading Trump by 7.5 points, 50.5 percent to 43.0 percent. FiveThirtyEight pegs Biden’s chances of winning based on current trends at 75 percent.

That fact that Biden can lead by more than seven points in the national polls just under two months out from Election Day and still face a one-in-four chance of losing reflects the fact that the U.S. presidential election isn’t a single vote but actually fifty-one separate ones. The Electoral College favors small (and rural) states, and most of those states currently lean Republican. The relationship between any Biden popular vote victory and his chances of winning the Electoral College looks something like this:

Both campaigns know this math, which is why they are focusing their attention on battleground states. The New York Times has a cool interactive that allows you to explore the various routes Biden and Trump each have to getting the 270 Electoral College votes they need. The Washington Post has an interactive that allows you to see how turnout might affect the outcome of the election.

Of course, a big difference with 2020 is that many more Americans will be voting by mail. A Washington Post poll released this week found that six in ten voters say they hope to vote early. That number may prove high—aspirations don’t always equal action—but it’s safe to say that vote-by-mail procedures will be tested in many jurisdictions. 

One question is the extent to which we will see partisan differences in who votes by mail. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released last month found that 47 percent of Biden supporters but just 11 percent of Trump supporters said they will. This has prompted talk of a so-called Red Mirage in which Trump leads the balloting in critical battleground states on Election Night with millions of mail-in ballots yet to be counted. If many more Democrats than Republicans voted by mail, then as those results come in, Biden could surge ahead to victory. Given the politicized state of American politics today, it’s easy to see how that could spur talk of a “stolen” election. 

The Red Mirage scenario becomes possible because the rules that election officials follow in processing mail-in ballots vary across the country. Some states allow election officials to validate and even begin to count mail-in ballots before Election Day. Twelve states, however, bar election officials from beginning the process of validating and processing votes until Election Day itself. Validating ballots takes some time, so election officials could be counting mail-in ballots for days after the polls close. That’s not an issue if the outcome of the election has already been decided. If not, prepare for Election Month

If you want to explore how voting rules vary across the country, Axios has an interactive for that. So, too, does the New York Times. If you want to know how to vote in your state, the Washington Post has an interactive for that

Election Day is fifty-three days away. But remember, mail-in ballots have already begun to go out in some states. 

Margaret Gach assisted in the preparation of this post. 

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