Dan Drezner doubts Beinart’s claim that the public-elite gap on foreign policy is widening because of candidates’ fundraising concerns. He also doesn’t put much stock in anything would-be candidates are saying right now:
This brings me to the final reason that I’m a bit more sanguine than Beinart about recent foreign policy rhetoric: it doesn’t matter all that much. Statements about how one would do things better on the foreign policy front are among the best examples of cheap talk you’ll find in Washington. Why? Because the world will look different in January 2017 than it does today. So of course these proto-candidates can say they’d do things differently. No one will hold them to these claims if they’re elected, because the problems will have evolved.
There is a lot of generic criticism of presidents on foreign policy that can be dismissed this way. Elected members of the opposing party and partisan pundits indulge in this sort of thing all the time. This amounts to little more than pointing at some unfortunate event in the world and pinning it on the president’s “failed leadership.” No one “holds them” to these claims because they aren’t making any real claims that can be judged on their merits. They aren’t proposing an alternative to administration policy, because their purpose is simply to drive up their opponents’ negative ratings and score a few cheap points for their “side.” For the most part, these are exercises in substance-free whining. “If only the president had been strong/competent, this would not be happening, but alas he is so very weak/out of his depth.” This type of criticism may even be identifying a genuine policy failure, but the person making it isn’t interested in explaining what that failure is or in offering a practical recommendation how to fix it. As far as the partisan critic is concerned, that’s someone else’s job.
Would-be candidates often start out by making similarly vacuous criticisms before moving on to offering a bit more substance. However, their statements matter more because they are using these statements to audition for other party actors and to find out which messages are appealing and which fall flat. When a would-be candidate’s statements elicit strong reactions within and outside their party, they are likely to matter even more.
Consider the Clinton interview from last week. The extent of her foreign policy differences with Obama can be exaggerated, but the differences have always been there, and Clinton used that interview to emphasize some of them. Because everyone assumes that she will be a candidate, it does seem significant that she chose to take fairly specific hard-line positions on Iran and Israel when asked about them. This wasn’t the safe, meaningless rhetoric that one might normally associate with a would-be candidate, but involved taking very specific and–for many Democrats–alarming positions. Since the message was so sharply at odds with what a large part of her party believes on these issues, I don’t think we can dismiss it as cheap talk. She may have been pandering to hawkish donors, or she may have simply been expressing long-held views, or both, but those statements do tell us something important about the kind of foreign policy we can expect from a future Clinton administration. The world will be different by the time the 2016 campaign take places, but Clinton has reconfirmed that her hawkish foreign policy inclinations remain unchanged.