This year’s Senate campaigns have largely ignored foreign policy issues:
But you’d get no hint of all that from listening to the 2014 midterm election campaign ads. In ads for the eight most competitive Senate races this year, international issues go almost unmentioned, according to a recent study of Senate campaign ads through the end of July by Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group.
That’s not a total shock because rarely do congressional elections hinge on foreign affairs. But the home-state focus of this year’s campaigns seems especially parochial at a time when international crises have risen dramatically in prominence and the world order is being upended in so many places.
This is even less surprising than the article makes it out to be. For one thing, “the world order” isn’t being “upended” in many places at all. What we have been seeing over the last year is a lot of hyperventilating and panic about the crumbling of “world order” out of all proportion to what has been happening. There are a few significant and destabilizing conflicts in the world, but the danger to “world order” from all of them has been grossly overstated. So it makes a certain amount of sense that candidates aren’t trying to make hay out of these conflicts. A more important factor is the public’s fatigue with foreign crises. Not only are foreign policy issues not a priority for most Americans, but when they are asked what role they think the U.S. should have in these conflicts they are more likely to favor neutrality or non-involvement than any other option. The campaigns are reflecting the public’s lack of interest in these issues and their opposition to involvement in these crises by paying as little attention to them as possible. There is not much incentive to demagogue a foreign crisis when most voters don’t want to hear about it and don’t think that the U.S. should be involved in it anyway. There is likewise no incentive to take many specific positions on issues that aren’t going to sway voters one way or the other.
One downside of this neglect during the election campaign is that candidates with very hawkish views are able to get through the campaign without having to justify their positions to the voters, and that probably allows some hawkish candidates to get elected easily when they might have a harder time if they had to defend specific policy commitments. It is also undesirable for all competitive Senate races to pay so little attention to these issues, since the new senators will have some role in shaping U.S. foreign policy in years to come. The less attention that foreign policy receives during the campaign, the easier it is for Republicans to gain control of the Senate without having to alter their hawkish views, and the easier it will be for the GOP to continue denying that its current foreign policy is a major weakness.