Larison says that foreign policy was particularly important to Cold War elections, and that therefore this period was abnormal, but that view should be qualified because with the advent of the Cold War, big-picture foreign policy debate largely ceased. There was an overwhelming bi-partisan ideological consensus in favor of the basic architecture of containment.
Millman’s observation about the consensus is mostly true, but if “big-picture” debate ceased the quarreling over which party could be trusted with what he calls stewardship was very intense. At least during the 1950s and early 1960s, much of the GOP was rhetorically committed to a position much more radical and aggressive than containment in the form of rollback, and Eisenhower ran and won his first election on such a platform. In practice, Eisenhower was never crazy enough to implement the rollback doctrine included in the party platform, and we’re all grateful for that. Let us recall just how absurd the 1952 Republican position was. Their platform stated:
We shall again make liberty into a beacon light of hope that will penetrate the dark places. That program will give the Voice of America a real function. It will mark the end of the negative, futile and immoral policy of “containment” which abandons countless human beings to a despotism and godless terrorism, which in turn enables the rulers to forge the captives into a weapon for our destruction.
Certainly, it was more opportune to use foreign policy as a club with which to beat the Democrats in 1952, since the Korean debacle was still ongoing, but in retrospect we can see that the failure of the Truman administration was not that it preferred containment to rollback, but rather that it interpreted containment doctrine too broadly.
Turning to more recent elections, I agree that Republicans have been treating foreign policy as part of the culture war, and this partly answers Millman’s question why “anyone on the other side spend their time demagoguing on foreign policy.” The rest of the answer can be found in the substance of Democratic foreign policy positions. On the whole, there is almost nothing in these positions that hawkish Republicans actually reject, but Republican politicians have been conditioned to claim superiority on these issues, and their voters are used to hearing them make the claims. Continuity in foreign policy between administrations has been such that there is no way for Republicans attack to Obama on these issues except for alleged poor stewardship and to make them part of the culture war. As we can see, this doesn’t require candidates to know very much about the issues as such, and knowledge might even get in the way. After all, treating foreign policy as part of the culture war compels candidates to endorse nationalistic and confrontational policies whether they make sense or not.