A headline last week in the New York Times read: “Bernie Sanders falls behind in a race centred on security.” A few days later on Meet the Press — one of the Sunday morning political talk shows that define conventional wisdom in America — conservative pundit Hugh Hewitt opined: “It’s a national security election. The Republicans had a great debate.”
At the end of a week in which both parties held presidential debates that focused mainly on terrorism, securing the border and how to deal with Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), this was the phrase of the moment: a National Security Election. As with much political conventional wisdom in America this meme has an easy plausibility about it but is ultimately shortsighted.
Let’s start by defining the term. A “national security election” is a presidential campaign in which questions about how to use American power and what role America should play in the wider world dominate the political discourse. This almost never happens.
Tip O’Neill, an old-school Massachusetts politician who was Speaker of the House in the 1980s and, therefore, Ronald Reagan’s main Democratic foil, famously said: “All politics is local.”
History has validated this statement over and over again. American elections are famously inward-looking affairs, usually focused on jobs and the economy, even at the national level.
In 1992, after successfully bringing the Cold War to an end, seeing the Berlin Wall fall on his watch and winning a famous victory in the Gulf War, George H. W. Bush appeared to believe his re-election was more or less guaranteed. Instead he lost to the governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton, who had no foreign policy experience but put a large sign in his campaign headquarters reading: “It’s the economy, stupid” as a way of reminding his campaign staff what really mattered.
There is no question that a big element in Barack Obama’s victory over Hillary Clinton for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination was the fact that he had opposed the Iraq war when it was not politically advantageous to do so.
That said, go watch the 2008 Democratic debates and it is surprising to see the extent to which they focused mainly on economic issues.
In the general election that autumn John McCain argued that his long national security CV made him the safe choice in a dangerous world. With a global financial crisis in full swing, however, Obama’s argument that he was better in tune with working Americans carried the day.
It is true that people are telling pollsters right now that terrorism is their main concern — but the election is more than 10 months away. Unless there is a major terrorist attack in the late summer or autumn of next year that resonates with Americans the way the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino have done over the last few weeks, national security will play a supporting role — and a small one at that — in the choice of America’s next president.
Trust and nuclear weapons
So while pundits and more than a few candidates are all acting as though what the media likes to call the ‘Commander-in-Chief test’ will be the defining element of the 2016 election, I am here to say that might be true in the short term but is unlikely to decide the presidency next November.
There will be exceptions to this, of course. If Donald Trump or Texas Senator Ted Cruz wins the Republican nomination expect to hear a lot of unsubtle whispering from Democrats (and at least a few Republicans) questioning whether this is the sort of person who should be entrusted with control of America’s nuclear weapons.
That aside, however, do not believe anyone who tells you that this campaign is going to be won or lost via speeches delivered at think tanks and the question of who has the best policy papers regarding the South China Sea.
Polls may show that around 60 per cent of Americans disapprove of the way Barack Obama is handling Daesh, but it is extremely unlikely that when the election actually takes place this will sway many votes. Surveys show that right now many voters — Republicans especially — favour much more military action against Daesh, but only a fool would read very much into those numbers at this stage of the campaign.
Right now politicians on both sides are pandering to voters — Democrats by trying to calm them down; Republicans by trying to rile them up. Neither of those approaches has a lot of relevance to what either nominee will be saying eight months from now, or what the new president will be doing come 2017.
We who care about foreign policy must always remember that our concerns, however weighty they may be, will always come in second where the average voter is concerned. Or perhaps fifth.
Gordon Robison, a longtime Middle East journalist and US political analyst, teaches political science at the University of Vermont.