According to evolving campaign lore, Donald Trump’s son called failed Republican candidate John Kasich ahead of Trump’s VP pick in July and told him he could be “the most powerful vice president” ever—in charge of foreign policy, and domestic too—if he agreed to come on board.
While Trump’s people have denied such a lavish entreaty ever occurred, it has become a powerful political meme: the Republican nominee’s lack of experience would force him to default to others, particularly on the international front, which is a never-ending series of flash points dotting Europe, Asia, and the Middle East like a child’s Lite Brite.
On the Democratic side there is no such concern—Hillary Clinton has plenty of experience as a senator and secretary of state, and was a “two-for-one” first lady who not only took part (unsuccessfully) in the domestic health-care debate, but passionately advocated (successfully) for the bombing campaigns in Bosnia and Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
So what of Trump and Clinton’s vice-presidential picks? For starters, they are both hawkish.
Indiana Gov. Mike Pence was an apt pupil of Bush and Cheney during the neoconservative years, voting for the Iraq War in 2002 and serving as one of David Petraeus’s cheerleaders in favor of the 2007 surge. He has since supported every intervention his fellow Republicans did, even giving early praise to Hillary Clinton and the Obama administration for the 2011 intervention in Libya.
On the other side, Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine is as far from the Bernie Sanders mold as they come: a centrist Democrat who supports a muscular, liberal-interventionist foreign policy, and who has been pushing for greater intervention in Syria, just like Hillary Clinton.
If veeps do matter—and as we saw with Dick Cheney, in many ways they can, bigtime—the non-interventionists can expect nothing but the status quo when it comes to war policy and the war machine at home for the next four years. Under the right conditions, Pence would help drag Trump to the right on war and defense, and Kaine would do nothing but bolster Clinton’s already hawkish views on a host of issues, including those involving Syria, Russia, the Middle East, and China.
If anything, Pence could end up having more influence in the White House, said Bonnie Kristian, a writer and fellow at Defense Priorities, in an interview with TAC. “With these two campaigns, I would predict that Pence would have more of a chance of playing a bigger role [in the presidency] than Tim Kaine does,” she offered. Pence could bring to bear a dozen years of experience as a pro-war congressman, including two years on the foreign-affairs committee. “He’s been a pretty typical Republican on foreign policy and has a lot of neoconservative impulses. I don’t think we could expect anything different,” she added.
For his part, Trump “has been all over the place” on foreign policy, she said, and while his talk about restraint and Iraq being a failure appeals to her and others who would like to see America’s overseas operations scaled back, his bench of close advisors is not encouraging. Walid Phares, Gen. Michael Flynn, Chris Christie, Rudy Giuliani: along with Pence, all could fit like neat little pieces into the Bush-administration puzzle circa 2003, and none has ever expressed the same disregard for the Bush and Obama war policies as Trump has on the campaign trail.
“On one hand, [Trump] has referred to the war in Iraq and regime change as bad and nation-building as bad, but at the same time he has no ideological grounding,” said Jack Hunter, politics editor at Rare. If Trump leaves the policymaking up to others, including Pence, “that doesn’t bode well for those who think the last Republican administration was too hawkish and did not exhibit restraint.”
Pence, Kristian reminds us, gave a speech just last year at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in which he called for a massive increase in military spending. “It is imperative that conservatives again embrace America’s role as leader of the free world and the arsenal of democracy,” Pence said, predicting then that 2016 would be a “foreign-policy election.”
“He embraces wholeheartedly a future in which America polices the world—forever—refusing to reorient our foreign policy away from nation-building and toward restraint, diplomacy and free trade to ensure U.S. security,” Kristian wrote in The Hill back when Pence accepted his place on the Trump ticket in July. Since then, he has muted his support for Iraq (Trump has said Pence’s 2003 vote doesn’t matter, even calling it “a mistake”). Clearly the two men prefer to meet on the issue of Islamic threats and the promise of “rebuilding the military,” areas where they have been equally enthusiastic.
Meanwhile, former Bernie Sanders supporters should be rather underwhelmed with Kaine on national-security policy. On one hand, writers rush to point out that Kaine split with President Obama and Hillary Clinton just a few years ago, arguing the administration could not continue to use the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) to fight ISIS in Iraq and Syria. He also proposed legislation with Sen. John McCain to update the War Powers Act; the bill would have required the president to consult with Congress when starting a war, and Congress to vote on any war within seven days of military action. That would tighten the constitutional responsibilities of both branches, the senators said in 2013.
On the War Powers Act, Kaine gets points with constitutionalists like University of Texas law professor Steven Vladeck, who said Kaine’s effort “recognizes, as we all should, the broader problems with the War Powers Resolution as currently written—and with the contemporary separation of war powers between Congress and the executive branch.” But on the issue of the AUMF, Vladeck and others have not been so keen on Kaine.
Kaine has made two proposals relating to the AUMF, and both would leave the door open to extended overseas military combat operations—including air strikes, raids, and assassinations—without a specific declaration of war. The first directs the president to modify or repeal the 2001 AUMF “by September 2017”; the second, authored with Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, keeps the 2001 AUMF but updates the 2002 AUMF used to attack Iraq to include ISIS.
A revised AUMF is likely to do precisely what the Bush administration sought to do in the run-up to the Iraq War: codify a dangerous unilateral theory of preemptive war, and provide a veneer of legality for an open-ended conflict against an endlessly expanding list of targets.
While he might be applauded for trying to strengthen “the rule of law on foreign policy,” said Kristian, it’s not clear he wants to do it “to scale back these interventions.” As a member of both the armed-services and foreign-relations committees, he has already argued for greater intervention in Syria, calling for “humanitarian zones”—which, like “no-fly zones” and “no-bombing zones,” mean the U.S. better be ready to tangle with the Syrian president and Russia as well as ISIS.
Plus, when Kaine was running for his Senate seat in 2011, and Obama—with Clinton’s urging—was in the midst of a coalition bombing campaign in Libya, Kaine was much more noncommittal when it came to the War Powers Act, saying Obama had a “good rationale” for going in. When asked if he believed the War Powers Act legally bound the president to get congressional approval to continue operations there, he said, “I’m not a lawyer on that.”
If anything, Kaine will serve as a reliable backup to a president who is perfectly willing to use military force to promote “democracy” overseas. He neither softens Clinton’s edges on military and war, nor is necessary to sharpen them. “Does Tim Kaine change [any dynamic]? I don’t think so,” said Hunter, adding, “I can’t imagine he is as hawkish as her on foreign policy—she is the worst of the worst.”
So when it comes to veep picks, the value is in the eye of the beholder. “If you are a conservative and you don’t think Trump is hawkish enough, you will like it that Pence is there,” notes Hunter. On the other hand, if you like Trump’s attitude on the messes overseas—preferring diplomacy over destruction, as he said in his speech Wednesday—Pence might make you think twice, added Kristian. “I’m not sure Pence is going to further those inclinations, if indeed they do exist.”
To make it more complicated, the American public is unsure how it wants to proceed overseas anyway. While a majority favor airstrikes and sending in special-operations groups to fight ISIS in Syria, only a minority want to insert combat troops or even fund anti-Assad groups, according to an August poll. A slim majority—52 percent—want to establish no-fly zones. Yet only 31 percent want to see a deal that would keep Bashar Assad in power.
A tall order for any White House.
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter.