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Why the GOP Won’t Benefit from a Foreign Policy Election

Dan Drezner concludes that a foreign policy election in 2016 likely won’t benefit Republicans very much:

So if the status quo persists — and I’ll get back to that “if” in a second — then it seems as if the GOP will not benefit as much from a foreign policy campaign as is commonly believed. GOP voters will eat up the hawkish rhetoric that the Republican candidates will dish out. The rest of the electorate, however, seems less interested in foreign policy and less receptive to the GOP’s message.

Drezner points out that most voters don’t consider foreign policy and national security issues to be top priorities for the next election, so the hawkish candidates’ preoccupation with these issues won’t have very broad appeal. He also notes that the hawkish candidates are on the wrong side of public opinion on some major issues, such as the negotiations with Iran, so the content of the hawks’ message is likely to be off-putting rather than attractive. On top of all that, the most recent Republican administration presided over more than its share of foreign policy debacles. I agree with all of this, but I would add a couple more things.

Obama’s foreign policy is vulnerable to criticism, but Republican hawks always wrongly assume that the right answer is to fault Obama for being “weak” or “feckless” or failing to “lead.” This is their most serious misreading of the public’s mood, because they wrongly assume that most Americans are craving a more activist and meddlesome foreign policy than the one we already have. While there may be support for a specific intervention, such as the war on ISIS, that doesn’t mean that the public is eager for the U.S. to entangle itself in each new crisis that comes along. That is more or less what almost every Republican candidate is promising to do. At the same time, the GOP field is almost unanimous in its hostility to diplomatic engagement with Cuba and Iran. This not only puts them on the wrong side of public opinion on those issues, but it reflects the extent to which their policy views are extremely ideological, and that is normally a political liability in a general election. Generic hawkishness may not be a drawback, but hard-line, fanatical hawkishness certainly will be.

The Republican field includes a lot of candidates with little or no foreign policy experience. When the most “senior” candidate on these issues is likely to be Rick Santorum, that means that all of the candidates have spent relatively little time learning about these issues or giving them any serious thought. That may not be a big problem in a primary race in which almost all the candidates are trying to out-hawk one another, but it is going to be a drag on the Republican ticket when general election voters are trying to decide if the nominee is ready to be president. If Republican candidates weren’t so enthusiastic to talk about foreign policy, this could be managed by keeping their comments on these issues to a minimum. Because they think they have the advantage, they won’t be able to stop talking about it, which will make their weaknesses harder for voters to ignore.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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