from U.S. Foreign Policy Program

The GOP Debate: Room for Foreign Policy?

The Republican presidential candidates are aligned on most foreign policy issues, but they could quarrel over immigration and the Iran nuclear deal in their first debate, says CFR’s James M. Lindsay.

August 5, 2015

Interview
To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

Republican candidates kick off a new phase of the 2016 presidential campaign on Thursday as they descend on Cleveland, Ohio, for their first nationally televised debate. The GOP field is aligned on most foreign policy issues, but fault lines could emerge over immigration and the Iran nuclear deal, explains CFR’s Jim Lindsay. Polls suggest that most voters are concerned about terrorism, but they are less interested in foreign policy matters more broadly, says Lindsay. “Americans worry about stopping jihadists and the self-proclaimed Islamic State and not necessarily about Ukraine, disputes in the South China Sea, or trade policy with Europe,” he says.

2016 Republican Presidential Debate U.S. Republican presidential candidate Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky speaks during a campaign stop in Illinois, August 1, 2015. (Photo: Jim Young/Reuters)
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You’ve been profiling the candidates on your blog as they’ve announced. Thus far, what has stood out as you’ve examined their foreign policy credentials, particularly from the Republican field, which will have its first debate tomorrow?

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Three things stand out about the current group of Republican presidential candidates. The first is the uniformity of their criticism of President Obama’s handling of foreign policy. Republican presidential candidates have all argued that the president has been too weak in his handling of foreign policy, and that that weakness has left America vulnerable, alienated its friends and allies, and sowed the seeds of chaos in the world.

The second thing that is distinctive is the divergent level of foreign policy experience they have. Some candidates—think Lindsey Graham, senator from South Carolina—have a long record of being involved in foreign policy. Many other candidates, particularly most of the Republican candidates who are governors, have far less experience in foreign policy. And that range of experience has cropped up as an issue among Republicans, raising the question of how much experience a president needs in foreign policy upon taking office. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), for example, has said that there’s no way a governor can be ready on day one to manage U.S. foreign policy. That led Gov. Scott Walker (R-WI) to retort that Sen. Rubio was questioning how, in fact, Ronald Reagan was ready when he took the oath of office in January 1981.

The third notable thing about what Republican presidential candidates have said about foreign policy is that much of their focus has been on Iran, the Middle East, and the self-proclaimed Islamic State, and to a lesser extent about Russia and Ukraine. There has been relatively little commentary—either in prepared remarks or in media interviews—about U.S. policy in Asia, in particular on the question that consumes many foreign policy experts: How should the United States respond to the emergence of China as a major power in Asia?

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Recent U.S. presidents, such as Clinton, Bush, Obama—and you mentioned Reagan—won the White House having limited foreign policy experience. So, is an extensive foreign policy resume, like that of a Lindsey Graham or a Hillary Clinton, an asset or a liability?

In all likelihood, it’s neither. Voters, to the extent that they use foreign policy to make up their minds about whom to vote for, are less interested in determining whether a candidate knows everything, as opposed to ’do they know enough?’ And much of what candidates are trying to do in debates, on the stump, and in media interviews is to project to voters that they are sufficiently well-informed, sufficiently suited temperamentally, and sufficiently suited in terms of judgment to handle the unknown list of challenges they will face should they sit in the Oval Office.

With the U.S. economy on the mend and unemployment coming down, do you expect foreign policy to play a greater role this election cycle?

No. While foreign policy will matter to voters, it probably won’t end up mattering in the ultimate vote. There are two reasons for that. If you look at public opinion today, foreign policy has risen up the list of priorities, but that’s much more true for Republican voters than for Democratic voters. And if you look at Republican presidential candidates, there’s a fair degree of uniformity among them about how to handle foreign policy. It doesn’t look like foreign policy is an issue that will move people from one political party to another.

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Second, what we’re seeing in the polls is that Americans are particularly worried about terrorism, not about foreign policy more broadly. That is, Americans worry about stopping jihadists and the self-proclaimed Islamic State and not necessarily about Ukraine, disputes in the South China Sea, or trade policy with Europe. And polls continue to show that the public wants the president to address domestic policy first, and by a very large margin.

You mentioned terrorism as a particular concern of voters. Is that an issue on which we are likely to see some cleavages in the Republican field? For instance, Rand Paul has traded barbs with some of his GOP competitors on counterterrorism and surveillance reform.

On most of the foreign policy issues, Republican candidates are in the same area code if not the same zip code. But I would point to three potential fault lines that could show up in tomorrow night’s debate. One is something you’ve alluded to, which might be described as ’Rand Paul versus the field.’ Sen. Paul has—particularly in the last several weeks—intensified his criticism of his fellow Republican candidates for favoring a foreign policy that he believes is excessively belligerent and counterproductive.

The second issue that could be a fault line in the debate is whether or not Republican candidates are going to pledge to cancel the Iran nuclear deal on day one. All the Republican candidates have denounced the deal the Obama administration has negotiated—the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. The differences arise over the question of whether the next president should rescind the deal on day one. (This assumes, of course, that Congress fails to block the deal from going forward.) A number of GOP presidential candidates have said they would. But notably both Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ) and Gov. Jeb Bush (R-TX) have refused to make that pledge, instead, arguing that they would want to see what the international situation looked like on the day they become president.

The third issue that could trigger fireworks at tomorrow night’s debate is immigration. Several of the Republican candidates—most notably Governor Bush and Governor Christie—have in the past staked out positions about immigration reform that many Republican rank-and-file voters do not like and that some of the other candidates at the debate have sharply attacked.

Another potentially contentious issue that comes to mind is Cuba.

Cuba isn’t an issue that is likely to divide the candidates beyond what we’ve discussed with Senator Paul versus the rest of the field. Senator Rubio, should he have the opportunity to do so in the debate, will likely restate his strong opposition to President Obama’s relaxation of restrictions on Cuba and the reopening of the American embassy. But Cuba is not an issue that’s likely to divide the Republican candidates.

Another topic in the news is energy and climate change. On Monday, the Obama administration put out its clean energy plan. How do you see candidates positioning here?

In terms of energy, Republican candidates—like a number of Democratic candidates—trumpet the great success and potential of the revolution in North American energy over the last decade. So I would expect the candidates, if the question comes up, to discuss the great success that American energy companies have had.

The second thing I would expect is that Republican candidates will lay out the steps they propose to continue the energy revolution. There will be a fair amount of consensus on opening up new areas to drill in. On climate change, none of the candidates on the Republican side is endorsing action to address the issue or its consequences. Instead, what separates them is that some candidates don’t believe climate change is a problem at all while other candidates accept climate change is a fact but aren’t persuaded that we know what to do about it. We’re not going to see Republican candidates endorsing action to address climate change. Indeed, we’re likely to see them argue that the steps the Obama administration has taken and that Secretary [Hillary] Clinton and other Democratic presidential candidates have articulated are job killers that will retard economic growth.

Turning to the Democratic field, I think they have five or six debates scheduled, but no firm dates for these as of today. How do you see the foreign policy debate shaping up on the Democratic side over the next few months? What will be some of the fault lines, if any?

Two quick reactions. One, it’s hard to predict what the Democratic foreign policy debates will look like given we don’t know when those debates will happen, or what the format will be. Second, from everything we can tell, the discussion among Democrats is going to be much more heavily focused on domestic policy than on foreign policy. Domestic issues are particularly important to the Democratic rank-and-file voters. They’re concerned about the loss of jobs, the relatively slow growth in real-median wages, and income inequality. Those are the issues that are likely to dominate the Democratic side of the conversation, not foreign policy.

So at this very early stage in the campaign—we’re still over a year out from the election—what can you really take away from these debates in terms of foreign policy positions?

Not very much. This first event and the ones that will come in the fall are really part of a winnowing process on both sides, Republican and Democratic. The nature of the debate format in Cleveland tomorrow night is not designed to encourage in-depth analysis. The ten candidates will be able to speak for at most thirty to sixty seconds. I expect the bulk of what they have to say to be focused on criticism of President Obama; that’s where most Republicans agree. It’s going to be relatively short on specific policy recommendations.

What you can learn in terms of candidates’ foreign policy is also going to be colored by the questions the three moderators—Chris Wallace, Megyn Kelly, and Bret Baier—ask. So candidates may not get a chance to talk about issues they want to talk about, just given the nature of what the moderators put on the table.

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