Why 2014 Isn’t (and Shouldn’t Be) a Foreign Policy Election
Marc Ambinder finds it strange that foreign policy is being ignored in the midterm elections:
Some wags like to say that midterms don’t usually turn on foreign policy. But two of the past three — 2002 and 2006 — certainly did. In those races, at least one of the two parties had something to say. In 2002, the GOP ran on scaring the hell out of everyone and by using tactics that morphed the faces of disabled veteran senators into Osama bin Laden’s. In 2006, Democrats won seats based on voters’ general antipathy to the Bush war record and their own pledge to work to withdraw troops from Iraq.
2014 should be a foreign policy election. But it isn’t.
If we compare this year to the other midterm years when foreign policy loomed large in the voters’ minds, it’s not hard to understand why these issues are being neglected now. The ’02 election took place a little over a year after the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil, and it was happening in the middle of the ongoing debate over attacking Iraq that stemmed from the administration’s agitation for war. It was therefore an extremely unusual election that we wouldn’t expect to be repeated unless there were similar conditions today, and the conditions aren’t remotely similar. The 2006 election followed what had been up until then the worst year of the Iraq war, which saw not only an increase in American casualties but also a major deterioration in security for Iraqis. Bush and his allies made a point of demagoguing national security for political gain in 2002, and then suffered a backlash in 2006 because of the administration’s incompetence and disastrous Iraq policy. These elections have two things in common: they happened at a time when national security and foreign policy issues were at the forefront of voters’ minds because they were directly affecting the U.S. or U.S. forces, and the president’s party was clearly positioned to gain or lose support specifically because of these issues. Neither of these things is true this year, and so these issues attract little attention and don’t cut for or against the president’s party in a big way.
It’s worth considering why Ambinder thinks 2014 “should” be a foreign policy election. He thinks this because he is overreacting to foreign events:
The world is en fuego, with American interests at peril and President Obama’s foreign policy failing to stem the chaos.
It’s pure hyperbole to say that “the world” is on fire right now. For the vast majority of nations, there is no armed conflict, nor is there an extraordinary degree of disorder or violence. If we keep foreign threats to U.S. interests in perspective, we will find that U.S. interests are mostly not imperiled, and the U.S. itself is as secure as it has been in decades. The current freakout about how dangerous the world has become depends almost entirely on exaggeration of threats by politicians, alarmist coverage by the media, and a failure to appreciate how much less dangerous overall the world is today compared to previous decades.
For that matter, the preoccupation with the foreign conflicts that are happening is almost entirely an elite concern. Those that are most inclined to panic and exaggerate dangers to the U.S. are also most likely to have an absurdly broad definition of U.S. interests in the first place, and the public doesn’t share that view. Election campaigns are ignoring foreign policy because voters don’t perceive these conflicts overseas as problems that their candidates should be focused on, and candidates have no incentive to dwell on issues that voters don’t care about or to advocate for policies that most voters reject. When a candidate does this, as Santorum famously did during his failed re-election bid in 2006, he will often lose. One can like or dislike voters’ priorities, but it makes no sense to expect them or their candidates to pay attention to issues that don’t matter to them. 2014 isn’t a foreign policy election, and there is no reason to think that it should be one.