Voters prefer domestic issues, but Democratic candidates should make the case for foreign policy, too
There’s a great American tradition of voters caring more about domestic and economic issues they believe impact their daily lives more than the foreign policy issues that feel, well, foreign. But 2020 could – and should – be different.
Recent history shows us successful candidates stress domestic themes. Bill Clinton embraced “it’s the economy, stupid.” George W. Bush developed “compassionate conservativism” and a “humble foreign policy.” Barack Obama emphasized “nation-building at home” and sought a foreign policy that would not “do stupid shit.” Donald Trump stressed “America First” and “Make America Great Again.”
But the U.S. role in the world should be consequential to American voters because the U.S. wields so much global influence. The U.S. invasion of Iraq and NATO intervention in Libya demonstrated the destabilizing effects of regime change policies and the Great Recession of 2008 undermined global faith in the U.S. economic model. Moreover, low global confidence in President Trump has tarnished America’s global image.
The international system is now characterized in terms of multipolar competition with China asserting itself in the Asia-Pacific and beyond, North Korea testing nuclear weapons, the European Union diminished by Brexit and right-wing movements, and Iran recasting the balance of power in the Persian Gulf. Moreover, cyber-attacks on critical infrastructure have reshaped our understanding of foreign threats. Climate change remains the most significant threat to the planet, something that was reflected at the first Democratic debates when 15 minutes were devoted to this one issue.
We are back to major power politics while confronting transnational challenges. However, Trump is no anomaly. He has tapped into a deep American ambivalence about the world. Americans generally favor a more restrained U.S. global role and prefer that it not be the world’s policeman. His attacks on the foreign policy elite as insular, self-protecting, and detached from the public resonate with many voters.
Voters are not likely to embrace a return to a foreign policy they perceive as enabling free-riding allies at America’s expense. While many see the benefits of trade agreements, a plurality of Americans believe NAFTA is not good for the U.S. While Americans support immigration, many oppose illegal border crossings. Americans now hold mostly or very unfavorable views of China. Moreover, Trump can claim foreign policy wins, such as withdrawing from TPP, destroying the Islamic State, confronting China on trade, and boosting defense spending.
At the same time, Trump’s “win” against China cost American farmers dearly, and it remains to be seen if the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement was worth the disruption of our relationships with Canada and Mexico. American voters need to understand the reality that trade and our relationships with other world powers do have a direct impact at home.
Not surprisingly, foreign policy fissures have emerged among top Democratic candidates. Vice President Joe Biden and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., have staked out traditional positions by calling for a restoration of American global leadership. Biden stated, “It’s imperative that we act urgently to defend the liberal world order” and Buttigieg argues, “The world needs the best of America right now.” But the world is not suddenly going to return to what it looked like before Trump or Obama.
Among the progressives, Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) have cross-cutting positions. Warren sounds a lot like Trump: “There’s a story Americans like to tell ourselves about how we built a liberal international order… while international economic policies and trade deals have worked gloriously well for elites around the world, they have left working people discouraged and disaffected.” Harris has emphasized the importance of soft power with her criticism that “What we have seen recently is a president who is conducting foreign affairs by tweet. On Day One, I would make it very clear that I value the importance of diplomacy. I value relationships.” However, she has found herself on the same side as Trump on political negotiations in Afghanistan and trade with China. For his part, Sanders has extended his attacks on entrenched wealth in the U.S. to international affairs in stating that “Foreign policy must take into account the outrageous income and wealth inequality that exist globally and in our own country.”
Democrats need to address domestic issues that matter most to voters, namely Medicare and Social Security, infrastructure, taxes, jobs, health care, education, corruption and environmental protection. But foreign policy issues can’t continue playing second fiddle. Democrats should focus on repairing America’s global image and highlighting how they plan to tackle climate change. The ramifications of ignoring international issues will linger for generations, regardless of whether Trump leaves office in 2021 or 2025.
Chris J. Dolan is a professor of politics and global affairs at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa.