Zachary Keck argues that Clinton’s hawkish foreign policy views don’t matter for the next election because foreign policy isn’t a priority for most voters:
The only exception to this rule is when the economy is rather good and foreign policy is really bad. And for American voters, foreign policy is only really bad when the country is bogged down in long, pointless ground wars and American soldiers are dying as a result. Thus, foreign policy was an important issue in the 1968 and 2004 presidential elections.
Even in these rare exceptions, however, being hawkish doesn’t seem to be a deficiency but an attribute. Thus, while Lyndon B. Johnson decided against running for re-election in 1968 because of his disastrous policies in Vietnam, Vice President Hubert Humphrey’s strident opposition to the Vietnam War resulted in a landslide victory for Richard Nixon [bold mine-DL]. Similarly, George W. Bush was able to win re-election in part by painting John Kerry as overly dovish.
There are a few things that need to be corrected here. First, Humphrey wasn’t a strident opponent of the war. He wasn’t publicly opposed to the war at all. As Johnson’s vice president, he inherited the baggage of the administration’s war policy, which he publicly supported, and the party platform included a generally pro-war plank that Humphrey favored. In 1968, Nixon was the relatively more dovish candidate on Vietnam, and it was partly because of this that he narrowly edged out Humphrey. Hawkishness can be a political attribute when it is not directly connected to specific policies and their consequences, because it can be presented as the “responsible” position. However, the more clearly that the public can see the real costs of hawkish policies, the less popular they tend to be.
While Bush narrowly prevailed in 2004, his re-election was won by one of the smallest margins for a sitting president in modern U.S. history, which is all the more striking when one considers his extraordinarily high approval ratings just a year or two before. Bush may have tried painting Kerry as too dovish at times, but the main attacks against the Democratic nominee were that he was hypocritical to criticize Bush on Iraq when he had also voted for the authorization, that his opposition to the war was late and opportunistic, and that he was supposedly too deferential to international opinion (the so-called “global test” controversy). However, even in 2004 Bush’s foreign policy was already becoming something of liability for him and his party, and as the situation in Iraq deteriorated it became a major one. In the decade since then, a reputation for hawkishness has gone from helping presidential candidates to hurting them. Being perceived as the most hawkish candidate can often be a liability in presidential politics. Most voters may be willing to support a generally hawkish candidate, but not one that is perceived as reckless or too eager to resort to force.
Republicans lost the presidential election in 2008 for several reasons, but their ongoing support for and identification with the Iraq war was a major factor. Keck mentions the huge “imbalance” between McCain and Obama in terms of experience, but this is why that imbalance actually worked in Obama’s favor: the candidate with experience had supported the biggest foreign policy blunder in a generation, and the inexperienced candidate had not. In that case, McCain’s predictable hawkishness was political poison. Not much has changed in the last six years to make a reliably hawkish candidate more appealing, which is why Clinton does have something to worry about. One of McCain’s problems was that enough voters didn’t trust his judgment on foreign policy because they feared that he would plunge the U.S. into new and unnecessary conflicts, and everything in his record tells us this was a very reasonable fear. Clinton is somewhat less reflexively hawkish, but predictably ends up on the same side of every debate about the use of force. That will continue to make many people distrust her judgment on these issues, and that is likely to alienate some Democratic voters all together and dispirit others that she will need to turn out for her at the polls. That wouldn’t be enough by itself to change the outcome of an election, but it will make it more difficult for her to keep Obama’s coalition together and to get them to turn out for her as much as they did in 2008 and 2012.