from The Water's Edge

Does It Make Sense to Watch Tonight’s GOP Debate?

September 22, 2011

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They’re back! The Republican presidential candidates gather in Orlando tonight at 9 PM for another debate. This time the sponsors are Fox News and Google. Fox News’s Bret Baier will moderate, with an assist from his colleagues Megyn Kelly and Chris Wallace. Baier and Wallace asked questions at the August debate in Ames, Iowa. Politico and "The Caucus" both have debate previews.

Tonight’s debate has two twists. First, about a dozen of the questions that will be asked will be drawn from the more than 18,000 questions that people contributed online. Second, former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson will be participating. He appeared at the debate in Greenville, South Carolina back in May, where he was asked, "if you could be on a reality TV series, what would it be?" But he had been excluded from every one since then on the grounds that he barely registers in the national polls. (Sorry, still no Buddy Roemer.)

Will the debate be worth watching if you want to learn about what the candidates think about foreign policy? Dan Drezner thinks not. Part of his argument is indisputable. As Dan argues and I have often complained, the debates spend little time on foreign policy issues. Even when candidates say something interesting, debate moderators cut to commercial.

The other part of Dan’s argument is, well, disputable. He writes:

The second reason—and this is more informed speculation than a statement of fact—is that foreign-policy promises made during campaigns don’t matter as much for governing as domestic policy promises. As Ron Paul reminded people last night, George W. Bush won the presidency in 2000 on a platform of "no authority in the Constitution to be the policeman of the world, and no nation-building." I think it’s safe to say that’s not how he ran his foreign policy.

Dan’s argument would be more persuasive if his example proved his point. It doesn’t. Candidate Bush said he didn’t like nation building, and President Bush tried to avoid doing it in both Afghanistan and Iraq. It’s one of the reasons both occupations went badly. Beyond that, Bush carried through on much of what he said during the 2000 campaign. He didn’t like the ABM treaty, so he withdrew the United States from it. He thought that the Clinton missile defense program was inadequate, so he ordered the construction of a more robust one. He expressed skepticism of treaties and international insititutions, said he intended to provide firm American leadership, and vowed that the U.S. military’s true mission was “to fight and win war.” Sound familiar? September 11 changed Bush’s foreign policy agenda, but it didn’t change the core of his worldview.

None of this is to say that campaign speeches and debates tell you everything you might like to know about a candidate’s foreign policy views. No debate question or stump speech can ever anticipate all the situations a president will face. Dan is certainly right that presidential candidates sometimes say things about foreign policy that they have no intention of doing, as looks to have been the case with Obama’s 2008 pledge to renegotiate NAFTA. And Dan is equally right that presidents sometimes repudiate the foreign policy promises they make on the campaign trail, as Bill Clinton famously did with his opposition to favored-nation-trading status for China and Barack Obama did on Guantánamo Bay. (Though both presidents reversed themselves only after they tried and failed to implement their campaign pledges.)

But campaign speeches and debates do provide insight into how candidates think about issues. Just to take one example, no one should be surprised that Obama has aggressively expanded drone warfare to go after terrorists. He said in his August 2007 speech at the Woodrow Wilson Center that he would go after terrorists in Pakistan if the Pakistani government proved unable or unwilling to do. Both Democrats and Republicans criticized his remarks as reckless. He quite significantly refused to revise his position. We can now see why. He believed it.

So that’s why I’ll be watching tonight’s debate, and why I am sympathetic to Marc Thiessen’s column earlier this week proposing a Romney-Perry debate just on national security issues. That isn’t going to happen, but a foreign policy wonk can always hope. For now I will settle for Brett Baier asking a few good foreign policy questions tonight.

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