Foreign Policy and the 2016 Primaries

Friday, January 22, 2016
Mark Kauzlarich/Reuters
Samuel H. Feist

Washington Bureau Chief and Senior Vice President, CNN

Charles Cook

Editor and Publisher, The Cook Political Report

Bruce Stokes

Director, Global Economic Attitudes, Pew Research Center

As the 2016 presidential primaries approach, Charlie Cook, Sam Feist, and Jim Lindsay discuss the role that foreign policy will play in the upcoming contests for the Democratic and Republican presidential nominations. The panelists consider the Republican and Democratic candidates' foreign policy views and the salience of the issue to U.S. voters in the early primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire. The conversation also considers broader intraparty shifts in attitudes toward foreign policy and the overall outlook for the 2016 general election.

STOKES: Hi. Good morning. My name is Bruce Stokes, and I’ll be the moderator for our discussion today on “Foreign Policy and the 2016 Primaries.”

I want to welcome all of you intrepid people who have braved the threat of the storm today to make it out here, and also I think I’m looking forward to our conversation about the storm of our primaries and what they all mean to us because in a couple of weeks we’re going to be in the midst of it all. And one of the real questions, I think, is whether this will be one of those rare instances where this is a foreign policy election or an election that’s driven in large part by foreign policy rather than domestic issues.

We have a number of experts with us today, old friends Charlie Cook, the editor and publisher of the Cook Political Report, former colleague of mine at the National Journal for many years; Sam Feist, who’s the Washington bureau chief and senior VP of CNN, who can entertain us with stories about organizing debates—(laughs, laughter)—and how foreign policy can take over debates—

FEIST: That’s true.

STOKES: —and Jim Lindsay, the senior VP of CFR, director of studies, and the Maurice Greenberg Chair here at the—at the Council, and a longtime partner with Pew on a number of surveys of CFR members.

We’re going to have an initial period where I lead a conversation up here, but we will have ample time for you folks to ask your questions and make—and make comments. I will get you out of here at 9:30 as promised. I would remind you this is on the record. We are simulcast or livecasting this, so this is not a typical CFR event where it’s on what we used to call Chatham House rules and now are CFR rules, I guess. (Laughs.)

LINDSAY: Thank you. (Laughter.)

STOKES: And but let me start it off by asking Charlie Cook, our—the Pew Research Center’s survey in December found that for the first time in years national security rather than the domestic economy was the leading concern of the public. Now, this was in the wake of Paris, in the wake of San Bernardino. And specifically, terrorism was the issue that people were most concerned about. Now, Gallup came out with a survey in January that said concern about terrorism was down a bit, economy was back up as the number-one issue. So I guess my leadoff question to you is, do we anticipate, or do you anticipate, that this will be an American election which—where foreign policy plays, if not the most important role, at least a disproportionate role? Or will it still be domestic issues that drive the electorate?

COOK: First, the answer is no, I don’t think this is going to be a foreign policy driven election unless something—event in the 60 days or so leading into the election.

But what I first want to throw in, Richard Haass has asked us to announce that anybody that’s here this morning gets a 25 percent discount on their CFR dues for next year—(laughter)—because you’re so intrepid about coming here.

You know, Americans rarely, rarely, rarely vote on foreign policy issues, and it has to be a dramatic and immediate event happening leading into the election. And so I think, sure, I have no doubt—I mean, San Bernardino surely did spike it up, but I think—and we can get under this more different—but I think the mindset, you really—John Edwards used to say that we have two countries, the have and the have-nots. And for me, there’s a Democratic country and an independent country and a Republican country. And Republican attitudes towards foreign policy is near-apoplectic, existential threat to our country, you know, things are on the edge, we’re about to go into the abyss. And Democrats, well, this is a sign of somewhat elevated concern. And independents, in the middle but a little bit closer to Democrats. But you really—it depends on who you’re talking to how big a role it’s going to play.

FEIST: Well, let me—

STOKES: Yeah, jump in here.

FEIST: Just although during the primaries—we just did a poll in New Hampshire that came out this week, and Hillary does best on foreign policy—Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders—yet foreign policy among Democrats is way down. And just the opposite on the Republican side: foreign policy is the number-one issue for Republicans, they say it is, at least in New Hampshire, and I think elsewhere as well. And Donald Trump does very well. So in the primaries it certainly—to your point, Republicans are making foreign policy an important issue, and it’s playing out that way, which I think is giving Donald Trump more things to talk about that some of the establishment Republicans have less to say, and it’s giving him an advantage in the primaries right now.

STOKES: Well, let’s pursue this for a minute, because—

COOK: Which is ironic. We ought to just sort of savor this for a second, that—(laughter).

STOKES: Yeah. (Laughs.) Well, I mean, we—the surveys show—ours, CNN’s, others show—that there’s a real partisan split on foreign policy issues, that Republicans are more concerned about China than Democrats; Republicans are more concerned about terrorism and the war on terror, don’t think it’s working, than Democrats; Republicans are more supportive of sending troops to the Middle East than Democrats. As a Chinese friend of mine quipped recently, his assessment of the Republican candidates was that they believed in omnidirectional bellicosity. (Laughter.)

Now, the question is, omnidirectional bellicosity only works if the—if it resonates with the electorate. Why do you think that Republicans seem to be more afraid, and thus—and then—and in response to this, more willing to use force, than Democrats?

FEIST: So I think it could be a couple of—couple of things happening at the same time. As you headed out of 2015 and into 2016—put aside the little blip in the stock market—the economy was generally doing better. And if you’re a Republican looking for issues that you might be able to use against Democrats, perhaps foreign policy might be more effective, particularly if over the course of the next 11, 12 months the economy does recover. Unemployment was hitting recent lows as we ended 2015. So that’s a part of it in terms of tactics of the candidates, I think.

But it also resonates with Republicans. And Trump’s message from the beginning is playing—clearly playing on concern and fears among base Republican voters that have been exacerbated by Paris, exacerbated by San Bernardino. And he’s taking advantage of those—of that concern and that fear, and it’s working.

LINDSAY: But it’s also worth pointing out that Republicans traditionally worry more about foreign policy, defense, national security issues than Democrats. So what Charlie pointed to—sort of this very strong partisan difference between Democrats and Republicans, and also independents sort of fall in the middle on which issues are important and how important they are—existed before 2016. I don’t think we should lose sight of that.

In many ways, I agree with sort of Charlie’s opening point about this not being a foreign policy election in all likelihood. I mean, there are—there are rhythms in American politics, and we’re seeing them play out there.

STOKES: Well, let me—let me—

FEIST: Although foreign policy is—the unpredictability is something that, you know, who knows what’s going to happen in the world in August, September, and October of 2016? As we ended 2015, we were planning a debate that we had in Las Vegas in the middle of—in the middle of December. And as we had started to plan that debate, it was going to be a debate that covered a whole range of topics—domestic, maybe some social issues, foreign policy, terrorism. That debate came about a week and a half after San Bernardino, a couple of weeks after the recent Paris—the second Paris attack. And of course, it became 100 percent a commander-in-chief debate. That is the only subject we did because that’s what the news events dictated.

LINDSAY: Yeah, but it’s important to keep in mind the fact that something matters to the voters doesn’t mean it matters to the vote. I mean, what you sort of have to focus on, to what extent we talk about foreign policy, is it—in the case of the primaries—differentiating among candidates? And I would argue, in the case of the Republican primaries, since the Republicans are hitting the same basic theme—Obama is too weak, we must be strong, reassert American leadership—I don’t see a differentiating among the Republican candidates, that—

COOK: You know—go ahead, yeah.

LINDSAY: Just let me, Charlie. I mean, the other question is, will it change turnout? Are more people going to come to the voter—get people coming to the ballot box because of foreign policy? I don’t see any evidence that’s true.

And the final thing is, to keep in mind, is that most people already know who they’re going to vote for. They may not know it, but they do. We look at all of our social-science research, which indicates that people who tend to vote Democrat generally tend to vote Democrat, those who lean Republican vote Republican. And indeed, sort of the movable middle has over the years shrunk in size. You go back to the ’60s, perhaps 15 percent of voters in a presidential election from cycle to cycle may switch. Now it’s down maybe 5 percent, 7 percent. So the number of people who are open to being moved is actually a lot smaller, and I don’t think we should lose sight of that in this conversation.

STOKES: Well, I mean, that’s, I think, a very good point, is that if you look at the overall self-identification numbers, we’ve never had more people who self-identify as independents. But at least in our work—and I would assume CNN has found the same thing—that if you look at leaners to the Republican Party, leaners to the Democratic Party, actually we aren’t that, you know—we’re divided, but we’re—but there’s no—the middle is not nearly as big, and it’s very snug.

FEIST: And a lot of those tea partiers, for example, were—they call themselves independents because they don’t want to be associated with an official political party.

STOKES: Right. But they’ll vote—

FEIST: But we know that they’re Republicans.


COOK: There are people that have some deep-seated psychological need to call themselves independents. Functionally speaking, they’re partisans. And so they vote—an independent who leans Democrat votes virtually as Democratic as a real Democrat, and the same thing for a lean Republican.

But to a point Jim made a couple minutes ago, I’m sure Chris Matthews would not want to say this now that his wife’s running for Congress, but Chris used to say—with, you know, predictable overstatement—we have two parties in this country: we have a mommy party and a daddy party. And the mommy party is a caring, nurturing party that’s concerned about education and daycare and, you know, touchy-feely stuff. And the daddy party is tough on defense, tough on crime, et cetera, et cetera. Now, obviously it’s a gross exaggeration, plus very sexist. But the thing is, there’s some underlying truth there, is that there are themes in each party that are very, very real. So it is perfectly natural for Republicans to want to sort of rattle cages a little bit more on the—on the Republican side, but—or on the defense side.

But I think the other thing, though, is that there is now a view with—among conservatives and most Republicans that anything that President Obama touches or thought about touching is evil, wrong, destructive, dangerous. And even if he hadn’t thought of it yet, if he did, then that would be evil, you know. And again, it’s this apocalyptic, existential threat thing that’s over there that I think sometimes—and I don’t want to be an apologist for President Obama because I think he’s been a fairly mediocre president—but the thing is that it’s—there’s—I think sometimes in politics, if you hate someone so much, it really colors your judgment on a lot of things. And I think that they’re totally, totally blinded by their hatred for him, therefore they’re not necessarily making a lot of really objective judgments on—

STOKES: Well, do you think, though, to the—

FEIST: Although their dislike for Hillary Clinton is not wholly different than their dislike for Barack Obama.

COOK: It’s close. It’s close, yeah.

STOKES: But do you think that, because Obama is president and this has been Obama’s foreign policy for the last seven years, that to the extent that foreign policy is an issue in this election, it’s really a referendum on Obama’s handling of foreign policy? Then it gets back to Charlie’s point about it’s a referendum on Obama. You know, we know in our surveys that for years now people have said he’s not tough enough, but it’s Republicans who say—overwhelmingly who say he’s not tough enough. Actually, Democrats think he’s doing a fine tough job. But this question of the need to have a tough president, a perception of a president being tough, does it appeal to an authoritarian strain among some voters? I mean, there’s some debate here about what—about what Trump’s appeal is, it is to authoritarianism. What does this say about the voters?

COOK: Well, and let me ask a question of these guys. Is the question, you know, approve/disapprove president job—Obama’s job on foreign policy, it’s almost a real question of how do you think things are going on in the world.

STOKES: Yeah, yeah.

COOK: And if things aren’t going on—you know, if they feel uneasy about what’s going on in the world, then it’s thumbs down, notwithstanding the feelings that conservatives have and Republicans have towards him.

FEIST: But the issue of strong leader, that question we’ve been asking forever, matters, and it’s mattered in election after election. Americans tend to elect the person they see as the stronger of the two general election candidates, not always but almost always. And I think that this is one of those years where that matters. Foreign policy is a big part of it. Sometimes strong leader is because can this person guide the U.S. economy and get us out of a ditch if that’s what’s necessary, but the notion of picking the candidate of the two who’s the stronger leader is not new and plays out almost every time.

STOKES: Let’s back up for one minute here. I want to ask Jim, you know, we’re debating whether foreign policy’s going to be a lead issue in this election. When was the last time that foreign policy played a major role in a presidential election as we kind of think back about the outcome of past presidential elections?

LINDSAY: Well, I would say that that notion of a foreign policy election is sort of the white whale of American politics: It’s much commented-upon but very seldom sighted. I mean, you sort of go back, throw out candidates—1968, Humphrey versus Nixon. But when you actually look at sort of the policy positions of both men, they weren’t that far apart, so it wasn’t necessarily that a particular position on that issue separated them. I mean, there were plenty of other issues going on in the country at the time. I mean, think of George Wallace and his popularity. It wasn’t tied to the Vietnam War. 1980 with Ronald Reagan.

FEIST: Hostages.

LINDSAY: You can talk about the hostages, but I would also remind everybody there was something called the Misery Index and a sense that the economy is not doing very well, interest rates in double digits. So it’s very hard to sort of say that was an election that clearly turned on foreign policy.

I do think you can see in primaries where foreign policy can matter. And go back to 2008 with Barack Obama and Secretary Clinton, or then-Senator Clinton, in which I think for Senator Clinton certainly at the beginning her position on Iraq—the fact that she had voted for it and was unwilling, at least at that point, to apologize or repudiate her vote, unlike several of the other people in the primary challenge at that time—I think did give Barack Obama an opening. Now, was that really a foreign policy issue or it was a question sort of what Democrats viewed as a major mistake that she didn’t want to walk away from?

FEIST: Bernie Sanders is taking advantage of that same issue this time.


FEIST: It’s one of the few areas where Hillary Clinton was out of—is out of step with her party, and she’s acknowledged that her—that it was a mistake, that the war was a mistake, on and on. But he has used that issue, and—

STOKES: It is amazing that—what is that, eight, now maybe 14 years ago that that vote took place, and it’s still being thrown up as this is a bad judgment you—

LINDSAY: It’s thrown up, but it’s not how effective it is because it’s very interesting. The issue that would have potentially distinguished between Secretary Clinton and Senator Sanders would have been TPP, the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

STOKES: Right.

LINDSAY: And very early on in the campaign, Secretary Clinton took it off the table by saying, while I have been in favor of free trade and in favor of TPP, this one didn’t meet my standards. And that essentially neutralized that issue, that could have divided or separated the two candidates.

FEIST: And the—and the Iraq war vote could also have been a bigger issue for Democrats if foreign policy was a bigger concern among Democrats. But because it’s so low, it’s not at the heart of the conversation right now.

LINDSAY: Yes, but I think most Democrats don’t consider trade to be foreign policy.

FEIST: No, that’s correct.

LINDSAY: That’s about jobs and the economy.

COOK: But let’s face it, anything other than income/wealth inequality or free college tuition Bernie Sanders really doesn’t want to talk about, and he’s not comfortable talking about it. And I think that’s one thing that’s going to sort of keep this from getting too elevated on the Democratic side, is that’s—you know, he’s pretty much on-message and uncomfortable getting off-message.

FEIST: Well, but—

LINDSAY: But also keep in mind, on foreign policy, they’re not in violent disagreement. They agree in large part. They are comfortable with, essentially, President Obama’s foreign policy. There’s a lot of reason not to come out and say that. And I do think—getting back to your point, Bruce—when you get to a general election, Republicans clearly will try to turn this into a foreign policy election, make it a referendum on President Obama’s handling of foreign policy. And whoever the Democratic candidate is is going to have to deal with that issue, and presumably will try to turn it away from a referendum on President Obama, talking about specific policies and—we’ve seen this movie play out before—arguing that the Republican candidate’s ideas are risky or not well-thought-out.

STOKES: Well, let me—let me ask you one question where you do see economic policy and foreign policy overlap, and that’s dealing with China, because at least our survey showed that when you ask people about their concerns about China, it’s the economy, the economy, the economy, maybe cybersecurity. It’s not military threats by China per se, but that people see, in that CFR-Pew survey we did, that among foreign policy concerns people name protection of American jobs as a foreign policy concern. So even though it’s technically not, they conflate the two, especially when it has to do with China.

So I guess the question is, we’ve seen a little bit of China-bashing in the Republican primary. I mean, Trump is—despite the fact that he denies it, it’s on tape that he called for a 45 percent tariff on imports from China, which I think outdoes Dick Gephardt back in the ’80s. (Laughs.) And—for those of you who remember that.

FEIST: And Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton by a mile.

STOKES: And Bernie—right, exactly. But it’s reminiscent of a little bit of China-bashing that took place between Clinton and Obama in the primaries that then disappeared once Obama became president. But it’s also reminiscent of the China-bashing in the ’80s, in the Democratic primaries especially. Do we think this has any traction in the election? Or is it kind of just noise and it’ll go away?

LINDSAY: I say it has no traction. Indeed, we were talking here about, you know, is 2016 going to be a foreign policy election? I actually don’t think the conversation right now is about foreign policy, it’s about terrorism.

FEIST: Mmm hmm. That’s exactly right.

LINDSAY: And indeed, all of the other issues, whether we’re talking about China, we’re talking about Russia, we’re talking about North Korea, if you want to go to climate change or Burundi, have largely fallen by the wayside. Candidates aren’t engaging in them. And it’s really—again, if you look at the public opinion polls and you ask people, what is the most important issue facing the country, they say terrorism. They’re not saying China. They’re not saying Russian aggression. They’re not saying the future of Europe. So I think we have to be careful we don’t sort of overgeneralize because there’s one issue that’s getting a lot of airtime that the public is seized with what we should do about North Korea. In fact, they’re not.

And indeed, if you watch this campaign, it’s in some senses not different from most campaigns. They’re very long on criticism—and, if you’re in the outside party, it’s criticism of the terrible job the incumbent has done—very short on prescription. Indeed, candidates tend not to get into that. Sometimes that’s a benefit because oftentimes candidates can make promises that come back to haunt them when they succeed in being president. But in large part because a lot of these issues don’t have really great policy solutions. And probably the classic case is with ISIS, where there’s a lot of—lot of pounding the table about who’s going to be stronger in dealing with ISIS, but in terms of particular suggestions about what they would do differently it doesn’t look that different than current policy. It may not be in the same ZIP code as President Obama’s policy, but it’s in the same area code. So that leads you to sort of, in essence, argue, as I think some of the Republican candidates have, that attitude will solve it.

STOKES: Well, let me—let me follow up on that. Is it—at least the tonality of the Republican criticism is very harsh, especially by Ted Cruz and others. The question is, is there any hint there, based on experience in past elections, that people are painting themselves into corners? Or is there no corner you can really paint yourself into as a candidate; you can get out of it by just ignoring it once you’re president?

COOK: I don’t know, I think Republicans have been painting themselves into corners on lots of things this year. I mean, to me, I always look—I mentioned earlier Democratic America, independent America, Republican America. And I always look and say, OK, for independents, on any given issue, do they seem to look more like the way Democrats think or more like Republicans think? And I think more often than anytime I can remember independents, they’re not over as far as Democrats are, but they generally are closer to where Democratic—Democrats are than Republicans are. And that’s politically painting yourself into a corner.

FEIST: Except that if you—if you believe that Donald Trump’s success so far is because the people who are supporting him are scared. They’re scared about terrorist attacks here in the United States. They’re worried about their jobs. They’re worried about people taking their jobs. They’re worried about having their job five or 10 years from now. They’re worried about whether their kids are going to have as good a life as they have had. His supporters, I think, fall into the category of concerned about all of those things. He is speaking directly to them, and I don’t know that he’s painting himself into a corner with this group of people, some of whom veer into the Reagan Democrat category. And he’s having success with those messages.

COOK: Yeah, no, I’m saying more Republican/conservatives. I mean, Trump is—to me, he’s more populist.

FEIST: Very populist.

COOK: I mean, he’s closer to the right than to the left, generally, but it’s really more populist than anything else, and more anger. And, you know, there’s not a lot of ideological cohesion with what Donald Trump actually believes or what he’s said over his lifetime.

LINDSAY: I would think if you’re a presidential candidate painting yourself into a corner is actually a good problem to have because that means you’ve won the election and you can deal with the problem down the road.

FEIST: Yeah, right. (Laughs.)

LINDSAY: And I think one of the things that happened when you have a conversation is really a lot of table pounding, it’s really sort of about attitude—if I’m in office, these good things are going to happen—is that you don’t paint yourself into a corner because you haven’t committed yourself to a certain set number of acts that you’re going to have to then walk back. I mean, think—classic case would be Bill Clinton’s opposition to NAFTA and China most favored nation status back in ’92, and then sort of having to find a way to sort of walk back from that. And that’s an example of that, even if you paint yourself into a corner, just to create a whole new room for yourself, so.

STOKES: Right. (Laughter.) Let me—let me ask you a question. We’re kind of venturing into a broader discussion about the election, and—

COOK: Does this mean we can get off the subject now?

STOKES: We can get off the subject, which you’ve all decided it’s just not going to be a foreign policy election, and talk a little bit—I don’t know about your conversations with leaders of the Republican Party, but my conversations with leaders of the establishment Republican Party is the palpable concern they have—mostly focused on Trump at this point, but you also see it in terms of their concern about Cruz—is this just noise at this point and they’ll coalesce around whoever the nominee is, because that’s what you do after the primaries, or is this a potentially fundamental problem for the Republicans if either of those two men become the nominee?

FEIST: Well, just yesterday was a fascinating day. You saw Bob Dole and Trent Lott come out with a negative endorsement of Ted Cruz—basically, anybody but Ted Cruz. On the same day, the National Review last night came out with an issue—a symposium, they called it, with 30 leading conservatives and many establishment conservatives, ranging from Bill Kristol to Brent Bozell, with a negative endorsement about Donald Trump. So now the real core of establishment Republicans and many even base conservative leaders are split, and have said, well, no to Donald Trump and no to Ted Cruz. And that was just yesterday.

COOK: But I would argue the establishment—it’s no to either one of them. But each one has—I mean, different people have different opinions, but this idea that the establishment is embracing Donald Trump or reconciling themselves, I think that’s the biggest bunch of garbage I ever—I mean, the thing about it is—

STOKES: Don’t hold any punches, Charlie.

COOK: They see this guy as a stone-loser in a general election if he were to get the nomination, and that that would be a bad thing. But they personally despise Ted Cruz, and that the—you know, for Bob Dole, God bless him, Cruz led the fight effectively to torpedo the disabilities treaty. And for Bob Dole, Bob Dole felt humiliated by what they did. He went on the Senate Floor and holds Ted Cruz personally responsible. So this is just personal.

Now, they hate both of them, or they hate Trump—or, I mean, they hate Cruz and they have no use for Donald Trump, but they’re not embracing anybody. It’s just who ticks you off more, Trump or Cruz? And different people come down in different places. But, you know, the establishment is not going to—you know, they’re not going to be embracing Ted—Donald Trump.

FEIST: But isn’t that the problem for the establishment, if they—at some point—they also haven’t rallied around any other candidates. They remain split. It creates a really complicated few months ahead of us.

STOKES: And it—and it seems to me their—at the root of their fear is that they could not only lose the White House when they think they have a chance to win it, but that they could lose control of at least one house of Congress in the process. Now, Charlie, you wrote a piece just this week arguing that—even if I get it right—that if you look at all the toss-up seats, basically, the Republicans can’t lose the House unless something momentous happens.

COOK: Donald Trump could not even lose Republicans their majority in the House.


COOK: With where these lines are, that cannot happen.

STOKES: How about the Senate?

COOK: Oh, the Senate, Republicans could lose a majority in the Senate just having a bad night. I mean, they could have, you know, just an OK nominee and lose, I mean, because it’s—this is—you know, when you’ve got six Republican seats up in states that Obama carried and only one—and no Democratic seats up in Romney states. So I mean, this is just a bad—the arithmetic’s bad for them.

But, you know, the way I see this—things playing out is, I mean, Donald Trump has basically 35 percent of the vote. Now, 35 percent in a 12-way field, that’s a big number. But when 12 goes to eight goes to six goes to four goes to three goes to two, I don’t think that 35 number expands a whole lot. And I can see us coming down to a point where Trump will have a third but probably bleeding a little bit, Cruz has a third maybe, an establishment guy has a quarter, and then there is a fifth that’s just up in the air. And what they do before, at the convention I don’t know.

STOKES: Well, that leads to my next question, and then we’re going to go to the audience. But I mean, when do you think we will have some better sense of who the Republican and the Democratic nominees are? If you put on your—you know, your prognostication hats here, is it March 1st? Is it March 15th? Is it—do we have to go into April and May? Do we go to the conventions? I mean, anybody—just each—

FEIST: The Democrat side’s easier. If Bernie Sanders has a good day in Iowa and a good day in New Hampshire, South Carolina becomes a really interesting test, particularly with how Bernie Sanders can do among African-Americans, which are going to be very important two weeks later on the March 1st southern primaries. If he has a good day in Iowa, and a good day in New Hampshire, and a very bad day in South Carolina, that’s going to tell you that the Democratic nomination could be wrapped up quickly for Hillary. If he has a good day in South Carolina, it goes, I think, for quite a while.

The Republican side, much more complicated. We have proportional voting through March 8th. March 15th we begin—some of the states, not all of them, are winner take all. And that process really just keeps on going for a long time, because the—I think it could easily be May or June.

COOK: Let me take the Democratic side. Let’s say, given Bernie Sanders—or, what are caucuses about? It’s about ideology, passion, energy, OK? So let’s given Bernie Sanders—just for fun—give him the Iowa caucus. In fact, let’s give him all 15 states that have caucuses. Let’s give him 100 percent of all the caucus state delegates, just for grabs. And then let’s give him New Hampshire and all of New England—100 percent of all the delegates from New England. You know what that gets him? Thirty-six percent of the delegates you need to win a convention, OK?

After caucuses, New England, and college towns, Bernie Sanders has nothing going on. I mean, there are just not enough soy latte-drinking, Birkenstock-wearing, Subaru and Volvo-driving people in the Democratic Party to nominate Bernie Sanders. And if God told me today that Hillary Clinton is not going to be the Democratic nominee for president, my assumption would be that the Public Integrity Section moved, she was prosecuted, and Democrats are going to hit the red box in the—you know, pull—in case of fire break the glass and Joe Biden’s phone number’s inside. I mean, that’s—you know. But this nomination is going to Bernie Sanders.

FEIST: You just said the same thing I said.


FEIST: I said—

COOK: But I said it better than you did. (Laughter.)

FEIST: I said, look at South Carolina.

STOKES: It’s now time to have it be said better by our—by our members here. So I would like to turn this over—and if you could speak up, identify yourself, make it a question. Even if it’s a comment, turn it into a question. Keep it short. And we’ll try to get around to all of you. Back here in the back, yeah.

Q: Jeff Bialos.

Just as an aside, there’s a sign on Pennsylvania Avenue where Trump is building a hotel. And it says Trump coming in 2016. (Laughter.) Maybe that’s a harbinger of what’s to come. And just one other quick aside, which is your comment on painting corners. I guess I just wonder how a party wins an election when they’re against the trend on most major social issues in the country.

But putting that aside, my question—a couple. One is on immigration, which is—you haven’t mentioned, really. And isn’t this a periodic tendency of the nativist impulse, sort of combined with a security element that we haven’t seen before? And isn’t that really a blend, because the people who care about this care about immigration, it’s sort of a foreign policy international issue, but they care about it because they’re afraid of their jobs and all of that, and Trump appeals to that, you know, blue-collar guy. Some Democrats by the way, which I worry about a little bit because I’m beating on that side of the aisle.

Second is, who are the—who are the foreign policy advisors to Donald Trump? Can you name them? I’ve asked people that and they don’t know it. And the last question is turnout. Sorry. I saw a CNN poll and it had this incredible flip. And it showed—last night—it showed that if the people who—if you looked at people who are likely caucus goes, Sanders is way up, but if you looked at the people who came to the caucus last time, Clinton’s considerably up. And I really wonder if the turnout numbers under Sanders—and these people haven’t sat through a five-hour caucus, I have—are real. And maybe you can comment on that.

FEIST: Let me address those poll numbers first. So new Iowa poll that CNN released yesterday among likely caucus goes—we screened for people that, as best we can, try to figure out who at least says they’re going to caucus—Trump 37, Cruz 36, Rubio 14. So these are people who are likely caucus goes. If you actually look at who voted in the 2012 caucuses—remember Trump 37, Cruz 26—it flips, Cruz 30, Trump 28. So the answer to the question of who’s going to win the Iowa caucuses is turnout, we always say turnout, but this year it’s really are there new caucus goers coming out, people who have not caucused before. Is there something in the Trump effect?

And the exact same thing happens on the Democratic side in Iowa right now among likely caucus goers—Sanders 51, Clinton 43. But if you look at the 2008 caucus goers, last time you had a competitive caucus in Iowa, it’s flipped—Clinton 55, Sanders 38. So you are right. And we have absolutely no idea who’s going to win the Iowa caucuses right now, because we don’t know who’s going to turn out. If the weather is bad, that’s going to change some things. I mean, it’s one of those—

LINDSAY: Can I just emphasize that, having lived in Iowa and participated in the caucuses. Ambient air temperature matters a lot because you have to decide whether you want to get off your sofa, go out in the minus-15-degree weather, go down to the local bus depot or fire department to kibbutz with your neighbors or not. The colder it is, the more likely you’re going to sit home and watch TV.

FEIST: Especially older voters. It effects them even more than—

LINDSAY: Well, I would say even younger voters, so.

COOK: Well, the more problem—the obvious problematic thing about looking at who voted—who voted in 2008, that’s fine. It probably is a—yeah, that’s probably a better indicator on the Republican side than the Democratic because Sanders’ vote is so age-driven, if you’re going to automatically exclude everybody that’s under 26-years of age, which you would do if you were saying only people who caucused in 2008, then obviously that changes things a great deal.

STOKES: What about immigration as an issue? How do you see it playing out?

FEIST: Well, just to your question about how can Americans support someone who disagrees with them on social issues, among Republicans here are the numbers on what are the top issues. And terrorism is likely baked into the foreign policy question. But nevertheless, among likely primary voters in New Hampshire, foreign policy 34 percent, jobs and the economy 26 percent, immigration 11 percent. And then it drops off a cliff. Heath care 4 percent, budget/national debt 3 percent, social issues 1 percent—among Republicans—taxes and education after that. It’s just not what—it’s not part of the conversation. It’s not part of the campaign. It may be part of the general election, maybe, but it just doesn’t seem to be registering right now.

STOKES: Right here in the front.

Q: Hi. Since—

STOKES: Could you identify yourself?

Q: Yeah. Mark Kimmitt.

Since you sort of dismissed national security as an issue within the general—or foreign policy in general—

COOK: Reduced it.

Q: —reduced it—how important is the issue of foreign policy writ national security going to differentiate on the nomination of the Republican candidate?

FEIST: I think it matters more—much more, as we said, on the Republican side. I think clearly Trump has tapped into something that’s important that has distinguished him from his establishment candidates. But I think it’s less about the issues and more about the person. And I go back to the strong leader measurement, that foreign policy is one of those issues that allows you to establish via either your positions or your rhetoric, yourself as a particularly strong leader, perhaps an electable leader.

Ronald Reagan did this, even in 1980, when it wasn’t necessarily a foreign policy election, we had the hostages and whatnot. But Ronald Reagan used his foreign policy positions, talked about his strength, America’s strength. And I think that built him up as a leader in a way that transcends foreign policy. He used those issues. Hillary Clinton is—even though foreign policy is not a top issue among Democrats—she’s certainly using that as an electability factor against Bernie Sanders, asking the question about whether he is—he should be the commander in chief, and using the strong leader metric, again, not necessarily because Democrats are going to vote on foreign policy issues, but I think because Americans still prefer the stronger leader when they have a chance to choose.

COOK: I think this goes to the larger whole Trump phenomenon. To me, half of the Republican Party right now—angry isn’t the word. They’re livid. I mean, they’re just filled with rage. And they’re venting their spleens. And a lot of them are using Trump. Trump is a vehicle for this anger. Now, the question is, is this going to continue on through the convention, or at some point will some sizable part of these Trump folks start to think, OK, I’m angry, I’m still angry, but seek a more plausible vehicle for their anger? And when I watch tapes of focus groups of Trump supporters, and you get a—I mean, man, they want you to know how angry they are and they’re not finished sending you a message.

But after about a half an hour of them talking, you start seeing some hairline fractures appearing. And you’ll hear this, I love what Trump says, but I wonder about his temperament, but I worry about his judgement, or but I worry about his personality. And I just—I think February is probably the last—I think—my theory is February is the last month that people are going to be sending a message. And when the real stuff starts on March 1st, I think you’re going to see a substantial part of this say, you know what? I’m having a hard time visualizing Donald Trump in the Situation Room, flanked by the joint chiefs, the director of national intelligence, secretary of defense and state, with his finger on the button.

Now, I’m not saying all of the Trump people are going to bail out on him, but I think enough—they’re going to steer towards an alternative vehicle for their rage. And I suspect that’s going to be Ted Cruz. So I think you’re going to see Cruz, he will have already—you know, after Iowa he will consolidate—Huckabee, Santorum, Rand Paul will be no more. Cruz will have completely consolidated the ideological conservative. But the question is this populist area that Trump’s got. I think you’re going to start seeing a decent number of those people bleeding over when they’ve finished delivering their message, and start selecting a president.

LINDSAY: Just on that question. Foreign policy isn’t differentiating much among the Republican candidates. If you look at it, in essence, for Rand Paul, he’s sort of out of tune with where the Republicans are. But Lindsay Graham is sort of the one, in a sense, with it—that has the most specific and tough—I mean, he was willing to send tens of thousands of troops to Syria. And he’s now on the sidelines. I think most of the candidates in the Republican race who are still there are angry, they’re going to do something, it’s added to, it’s not a specific policy. What really strikes me, though, is this sort of reverse question, which is: Why hasn’t foreign policy or concern about terrorism differentiated among Republican candidates? Why hasn’t it been the Republican candidates who have more experience have come to the forefront and someone like Donald Trump fallen to the wayside?

Just for the reasons that Charlie just laid out. And what’s really interesting looking at the polls, and I think Bruce and Charlie know this really well, is when you ask Republican voters, what characteristics are you looking for in a candidate, experience ranks way down at the bottom. They’re not interested in people who have experience. And that’s why when you look at all the governors who came into the race, and typically governors have very strong chances to become the nominee, they’ve gone by the wayside—no Governor Walker, no Governor Jindal. And the governors we do have still on the race are at the back of the pack.

FEIST: Three-term governor of Texas, Governor Perry, was the first one out.

COOK: We’ve seen—I mean, in the Republican Party, experience and expertise is now a disqualifying characteristic with half the Republican Party. Go figure.

LINDSAY: But this also gets us back to the question you asked—

STOKES: It’s so overrated. (Laughter.) I mean—

LINDSAY: But you asked about the establishment before. And the question is not what the establishment thinks, but does the establishment matter for how the election’s going to play out?

STOKES: Yeah. OK, right here.

Q: Lloyd Hand.

I have sort of a two-part question. First one, I don’t think you know the answer, but I’ll be very interested in your—based on everything you’ve read and you’ve heard, what your current analysis, assessment is. And that is, when and what you think Director Comey is going to come out with. Secondly, the—incidentally, I think it’s a wonderful discussion, very entertaining and illuminating. Second question is, who do you think ultimately will emerge as the so-called establishment candidate?

STOKES: Any thoughts?

FEIST: The answer to the first question, I have absolutely no idea what Director Comey will be maybe doing. We’ll see. He keeps his cards very close to his vest. He’s a good FBI director in that way.

The polls are suggesting that there’s any—if there’s coalescing going on, it seems to be Rubio. But I think it’s—I think we’re also looking at polls in two states right now, and that’s what matters, because if the establishment candidate—if someone other than Rubio, or whoever perhaps the third-place candidate—or the establishment candidate may be the second-place candidate in New Hampshire, could find themselves with a little bit of momentum. I think it’s a little hard to tell. I mean, we’re at the edge of double digits on the establishment candidate, particularly in New Hampshire, which is where it matters. Rubio seems to have an edge consistently in more states than anybody else. But it wouldn’t be—I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a surprise, particularly in New Hampshire. So I think the jury really is going to be out on that one until February.

STOKES: But what does this—but what does this say about the fact that there is a consensus, I think, among the commentariat that Rubio may emerge as the establishment candidate? This is a guy who ran as the tea party candidate when he first ran for the Senate, and would have been considered three or four years ago to be the right wing of the Republican Party? So—

COOK: Well, we’re talking about a former speaker of the Florida House. Now, admittedly it was a term limit state, so that’s—you know, who runs as a tea party guy in 2010 because that was the avenue to the Republican nomination—

FEIST: That was the attitude in 2010 was—

COOK: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And then ever since, he’s been an establishment guy. Although, in the last four or five weeks, you know, he’s started throwing more red meat into his rhetoric. But he had to do that. But I don’t—I mean, I don’t think Rubio is a tea party guy at all.

But to Lloyd’s other question, you know, this is one of the classic anybody who’s talking doesn’t know, anybody that knows isn’t talking. But it strikes me that this email thing is a—this is a hot potato that the FBI will want to get out of their hands. And so they’ll package it all up, hand it to Public Integrity Section, and say, you know, that’s why they pay you guys the big money. (Laughter.) And I personally think that the most important primary or caucus is the one at 1400 New York Avenue, which is where the Public Integrity Section has their offices. And Lloyd knows what they’re going to do. I mean, I don’t know.

But to me, that’s the only key variable for the Democratic nomination, is what do they do? And I’ve had lots of conversations with various people and, you know, lots of theories. And it almost seems like someone’s proximity to classified material makes them more likely to think that this thing may go to a bad place for Secretary Clinton than people with less. But you know, I mean, it’s clearly not anything like the Petraeus situation. It’s clearly not anything like what happened to the late Sandy Berger. This is more getting into John Deutch territory, you know? And—

STOKES: OK, in the back. In the back—way in the back. Way in the back.

Q: Thank you. My name is Igor Donetsk (ph). I’m a reporter for a Russian newspaper.

So my question is, do you think that the issue of policy and U.S.-Russia relations, can be—what role can it play in the current campaign, especially maybe in the—can be—it become more important to the second half of campaign if ex-Secretary Clinton becomes the nominee, because she was sort of author of the reset with Russia. And Republicans consider that it didn’t come well. So it’s maybe a subject to attack her. And secondly, to what degree do you think the current statements of candidates on Russia might reflect their policy if they come to White House. For example, Senator Rubio on multiple occasions called Russian President Putin as a gangster. And as bad as Russia-American relations were during the last two years, our presidents still weren’t at the point when they called each other a gangster. So if he comes to the White House, you know, will he keep the line? Thank you.

MR. STOKES: On the other hand, Trump has praised Putin. (Laughter.) So I mean, how do you think this is all going to play out?

FEIST: I agree with what Jim had said earlier about where foreign policy issues play in the campaign. If it’s not terrorism-related directly, I don’t think there are going to be many Americans who are voting on it. And if Americans are not voting on it, I don’t think it’s going to be a big issue. I think Putin becomes an interesting foil for candidates for people to—for candidates to demonstrate perhaps their toughness or how they might interact with a foreign leader. But I don’t think the issue of Russia, or frankly the issue of U.S. relations with almost any country, is going to be a significant factor in voting.

STOKES: But let me ask you all a hypothetical. I mean, obviously, we can dream up all sorts of hypotheticals that shift the nature of this debate, but let’s say just for instance that the Russians would decide to do something more in Ukraine, or do something in the Baltics, in other words demonstrate that this hasn’t calmed down but that it’s actually gotten worse. Would that even rise to the level of attention, other than just rhetorical excess by candidates? Or would it become an issue?

COOK: Well, or should it be considered an in-kind contribution to the Republican Party? (Laughter.)

STOKES: That’s right. Yeah, yeah. (Laughs.) The FEC might like to figure that out.

COOK: I mean, tell you what, because I’ve got to say is, you want to guarantee any Republican wins? That’s what it would take. That would do it.

FEIST: But it would have to be such a significant move that Americans felt that it was a direct threat to the United States. And even what you described, I’m not sure—less it touched terrorism, again, or terrorism at home, I’m not even sure that that would do it.

LINDSAY: It will shape what the candidates talk about, and they will all, in essence, be backward looking, saying if I had been president this wouldn’t have happened because I’m strong and Mr. Putin would have respected that. It’s not going to lead to any sort of great policy pronouncements. I don’t think it’s going to move what the public thinks. Specifically, I think it does create a problem potentially for Secretary Clinton because she is identified with the reset. So it gives a Republican candidate in a general election, if Secretary Clinton is the candidate, with a talking point as why you can’t trust her experience, because she didn’t do a good job with that experience. That would be the Republican argument on the reset.

STOKES: Right here.

Q: Charlie, Rob Quartel.

So this is for you. Very simple question. Based on the numbers and the—

COOK: Sam, be prepared to bail me out here.

Q: —and the tactics, could Trump beat Clinton?

COOK: You know, I love polls. And I—at least the good ones, I tend to live and die by them. But there’s some times when you look at polling and you just wonder, how seriously should I take this? And for example—and I’ll get to your—but for example, we’re seeing polling right now that shows Bernie Sanders running stronger than Hillary Clinton against various Republicans.

FEIST: Including Donald Trump.

COOK: Including Donald Trump. And it’s a product of Clinton’s numbers are so bad among independents, and that they have heard virtually anything ugly you could ever say about Hillary Clinton. And Bernie Sanders, I think, independents are less—they’re following Bernie a lot less than Democrats are. And you know, my guess is his negatives will go up. But are they going to go up to—I think the last NBC/Wall Street Journal poll among independents, Hillary Clinton’s negatives were like 57, 59 percent, something like that? I mean, it was a—it was a big, big, big number. Are they going to rise that high?

And so I don’t know how seriously to take things when people know lots about one thing, not as much about something else. And where the Trump—you know, their attitudes towards Donald Trump may not be quite as developed now as they will be, you know, down the road. So the short answer is I—you know, I think Republicans may do something stupid, but they’re not going to do something insane in this election. And I just don’t think they’re going there. I really, really, really—

FEIST: At the same time, I’d like to see a show of hands of anything in this room—very smart, mostly Washingtonians—who believed a year ago that Donald Trump would be the frontrunner for the Republican nomination. Go ahead, raise your hands. No.

STOKES: I would note to the audience watching that no hands have been raised. (Laughs.)

FEIST: But that shows how much we know.

STOKES: Let me just follow up on—I mean, bearing in mind Charlie’s point he doesn’t think Trump’s going to be the nominee—but I have talked to two union leaders—and bear in mind that unions only represent 9 percent of the private workforce, so they’re a small number of people—but two union leaders in two very prominent unions when asked about how do their members feel about Trump, and in both cases, our guys love him. So the question is, how many Trump Democrats out there for a general election, if in fact it would get—Trump would get to the general?

COOK: Well, I guess I would ask, is working-class white voters, how many of them are voting Democratic now anyway?

STOKES: Yeah. Yeah.

COOK: And I think the short answer is, not much.

FEIST: Even union members.

COOK: Even union members. And if it was—building and construction trades least of all. Manufacturing would be in second place. Public employees, now, they’d probably—

FEIST: But now just take that limited number and only look at Ohio and maybe Pennsylvania.

LINDSAY: Yeah, battleground states are where it’s—

FEIST: If you look at Ohio and Pennsylvania, where there’s a lot of white union manufacturing, and a lot of white non-union manufacturing going on, and the Trump phenomenon in Ohio, I have absolutely no idea how that could play out, but that’s the kind of—that’s the place I would work—I would want to see it. I would want to know more.

STOKES: Yeah. OK, Doug.

Q: Thanks. Doug Paul.

I wanted to sort of fight the trend that you guys are putting out about foreign policy not playing a role. August ’14, when these two Americans were beheaded in Iraq, public opinion polls really changed a lot about staying engaged in the world. And then in your December debate, Wolf Blitzer just asked one question after another terrorism, it was all about terrorism—

FEIST: It was 100 percent foreign policy.

Q: And I kind of wonder what’s the economy going to look like under that sort of circumstance?

Now, my question is, does ISIS get a vote this primary season? Can they do something that will make a difference, like it did in August ’14?

LINDSAY: Well, this is always the perennial question, whether you’re going to get an October surprise that upsets it. And again, it’s another sort of white whale. We keep talking about maybe this’ll be the election it will happen, and it hasn’t happened. What I will note, if you go back to August of 2014 with the beheading, is what it did was it changed the conversation. I’m not sure it necessarily changed who the candidates were going to be, or that it’s going to have an impact on what the outcome of the vote will be. And I think we tend to sort of focus on what the public is thinking, but there’s a whole bunch of steps between what the public thinks or is talking about and what voting outcomes are. And I think that’s important to keep in mind during this whole conversation.

So, yes, you could have a surprise. I think Charlie, quite wise at the beginning, put a big caveat in, that given where we are right now, what trends are right now, foreign policy won’t be the dominant issue. But it could change.

COOK: Now, I—go ahead.

FEIST: Now, August 2014 is when America was introduced to ISIS. America has never heard of ISIS. Maybe a few of us had heard of ISIS and realized there’s a growing issue out there, but America didn’t know what ISIS was. And it wasn’t in the—it was barely in the newspapers at all. It was not something that Americans were talking about. OK, now, two years later—or it will be two years later before the election—America knows what ISIS is. The question then is, at this point what can ISIS do to really shock America? But that could be the October surprise that Jim was just talking about.

LINDSAY: Right. And I would imagine—I would imagine if you were a candidate, particularly in your scenario, Doug, it would benefit Republicans given where public opinion is. The challenge to the Democratic nominee is to take steps over the course of the summer to the fall to inoculate yourself against that happening by staking out the argument that I am tough too, and I am tough and sensible. And presumably what a Democratic candidate will say is my opponent is tough and reckless—or forget the tough, just simply reckless.

FEIST: And equally unpredictable, where’s the economy going to be? And could there be an economic October surprise, as we saw in 2008, another factor that the candidates can’t campaign, but it’s an external force that will drive a lot of voters.

COOK: I have made one note during this conversation. FP, foreign policy, white whale, Jim. To me, that’s the money line.

FEIST: You’re not calling Jim a white whale.

COOK: No, no, no, no. I’m more the—but that’s where I’m going to be getting a proper quote from you and using it.

LINDSAY: I just finished reading “Moby Dick,” so.

 COOK: But you know, it’s sort of—foreign policy in elections, it’s kind of like the economy and Wall Street. This time’s different. And how many times do we hear this time’s different? And in the end, how often is it really different? And it might. It could occasionally, but not often. And I think if you knew absolutely nothing about anything going on, you’re better off betting that history will play out more than this will be different from all the other times. So obviously this election, as Sam said, nobody a year ago saw Donald Trump coming, absolutely. Nobody thought he was coming, nobody thought he’d go this high, nobody thought he would stay this high, yada, yada, yada. I mean, that is all absolutely true.

But I think the end of the day, will those of us who watch politics very, very, very closely—will everything that we have ever learned about politics be proven wrong this year—everything, 100 percent? I’m going to kind of bet the against. This will be a different year. It’s a weird year. It’s going to have some unusual dynamics. But one—you know, for Donald Trump to win this thing would require 100 percent of everything we know, we knew at the beginning, to be wrong.

STOKES: On that note, which I think is fairly conclusive though, we’re going to end this. I want to thank all the members. I want to thank the folks who have been watching this via the livestreaming. And we look forward to carrying on this conversation and talking about the—President Trump’s foreign policy in 2017, or Bernie Sanders’ foreign policy in 2017. So thank you very much.

LINDSAY: Thank you. (Applause.)


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