Democrats push to make national security a 2020 wedge issue

Democrats push to make national security a 2020 wedge issue

Foreign policy is getting placed on the back burner as 2020 Democratic presidential candidates look for a breakout moment in the party’s crowded field.

But Democratic senators and strategists are clamoring for White House hopefuls to talk up the issue, arguing President TrumpDonald John TrumpWarren defends, Buttigieg attacks in debate that shrank the field Five takeaways from the Democratic debate in Ohio Democrats debate in Ohio: Who came out on top? MORE is vulnerable on national security after sparking a series of international dust-ups during his presidency.

“It’s an enormous point of political exposure for this president. He continues to screw up everything in every corner of the world,” said Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyBacklash erupts at video depicting Trump killing media, critics Congress set for showdown with Trump over Kurds Administration to give 'top secret' briefing on Syria amid pushback MORE (D-Conn.), a leading voice within the Senate Democratic caucus on foreign policy. “We have the opportunity to close the national security gap with Republicans in 2020, so I would hope that Democrats see this as an opportunity.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Sen. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael Kaine2020 general election debates announced Senators call for Trump administration to testify on Syria Schumer: Transcript 'absolutely validates' Trump impeachment inquiry MORE (D-Va.), the party’s 2016 vice presidential nominee and a member of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees, argued that Trump’s record gives Democrats a “powerful critique” to make on foreign policy.

“When you get to the general election, ‘we’ll do a better job with the economy, and we will keep you safer than this administration’ — those are the two selling points that any Democratic candidate has to be able to make,” Kaine said.

Trump rose through the GOP primary by eschewing traditional Republican foreign policy, including taking a combative stance toward the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), knocking George W. Bush-era wars and arguing the United States should step back from its global watchdog role.

But since taking office, Trump has reached boiling points with countries including Venezuela and Iran; drawn rebukes for his warm relationship with Russian President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinDemocratic front-runners defend their age during debate Candidates unleash on Trump over Syria move, say he's weakening US Erdoğan says he will never declare Syria ceasefire: Turkish media MORE; stood by Saudi Arabia after the death of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi; walked back his pledge to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria; and ripped up Obama-era legacies such as the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear deal.

Ned Price, director of policy and communications at the progressive National Security Action, said Democratic candidates “should be going on offense” given Trump’s record.

ADVERTISEMENT

“There is some fertile ground when it comes to this area, precisely because of the hole that Trump has dug for himself. They should be going on offense. They should be attacking Trump's record,” said Price, who was a spokesman for Obama’s National Security Council.

He added that after decades of Republicans being viewed as having the national security mantle, “it would be a real waste of an opportunity to stick solely to domestic issues. I do think that you've seen Democrats recognize this and act on it."

National Security Action, which advises some of the 2020 Democratic presidential campaigns, released a survey late last month that found voters had a net positive view of Trump on national security — 55 percent approval compared to 45 percent disapproval.

But the survey also showed that Trump has net negatives when it comes to relations with North Korea, Venezuela, Russia and other countries.

Forty-seven percent of undecided 2020 voters said that while they approve of Trump’s actions on national security, they worry he lacks the temperament to be president.

And while former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenWarren defends, Buttigieg attacks in debate that shrank the field Five takeaways from the Democratic debate in Ohio New study: Full-scale 'Medicare for All' costs trillion over 10 years MORE is the Democratic candidate with the most experience in the foreign policy arena, other White House hopefuls are stepping up their efforts to outline their proposals.

The Hill’s review of websites for the 10 Democratic candidates who are leading in the polls, based on FiveThirtyEight tracking, found that eight of them have issue sections dedicated to foreign policy or national security.

The level of detail varies across campaigns. Biden, for example, discusses restoring U.S. leadership globally and includes sections on “using military power responsibly” and recommitting to U.S. allies; Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersWarren defends, Buttigieg attacks in debate that shrank the field Five takeaways from the Democratic debate in Ohio New study: Full-scale 'Medicare for All' costs trillion over 10 years MORE (I-Vt.) has bullet points detailing a “responsible, comprehensive foreign policy”; and Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenWarren defends, Buttigieg attacks in debate that shrank the field Five takeaways from the Democratic debate in Ohio New study: Full-scale 'Medicare for All' costs trillion over 10 years MORE (D-Mass.), who has come in third in several recent polls, includes a section about a “foreign policy for all.”

Sanders came under criticism from former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWarren defends, Buttigieg attacks in debate that shrank the field Democrats fear Ohio slipping further away in 2020 Poll: Warren leads Biden in Maine by 12 points MORE and her allies during the 2016 presidential campaign for his lack of foreign policy experience. He said in a CNN town hall earlier this year that his increased focus on the area was one way he has changed since the previous campaign. 

"I think I was rightfully criticized the last time I ran, but I didn't pay as much attention as I might,” he said. “I think a little bit more about foreign policy issues than I previously did.”

Some of the 2020 contenders have given major foreign policy speeches in recent years, including Sanders in 2017 and Warren last year. South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegWarren defends, Buttigieg attacks in debate that shrank the field Five takeaways from the Democratic debate in Ohio New study: Full-scale 'Medicare for All' costs trillion over 10 years MORE (D), who served in Afghanistan, is scheduled to give one next week.

Warren stirred early talk of her 2020 ambitions when she joined the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2017. Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerWarren defends, Buttigieg attacks in debate that shrank the field Warren leads in speaking time during debate Democrats wrangle over whether to break up Big Tech in debate first MORE (D-N.J.) is a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, while fellow White House contender Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisWarren defends, Buttigieg attacks in debate that shrank the field Five takeaways from the Democratic debate in Ohio Warren leads in speaking time during debate MORE (D-Calif.) is a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

But it’s not clear whether their early strategizing on foreign policy has spilled over into the early voting states, which have an outsize role in determining who ultimately snags the party’s nomination.

The battle for the Democratic nomination is being dominated by high-profile fights on domestic issues, ranging from overhauling the courts to the Hyde Amendment, even as Trump’s foreign policy has become a frequent flashpoint among long-standing U.S. allies and with some of the president’s top supporters on Capitol Hill.

A Des Moines Register analysis of questions 2020 Democratic candidates were getting from Iowans found that foreign policy was low on the list of topics.

Of the 38 questions Sanders was recorded as receiving during events in the state in April, only one was designated by the Register as pertaining to veterans affairs or military issues. No questions were designated as foreign policy related.

For Warren, of the 12 questions The Des Moines Register recorded her being asked, one was labeled as related to veterans affairs or military issues. Most were about health care and education.

Overall, according to the analysis, candidates were quizzed primarily on health care, followed by the environment and education. Across the entire field, they were asked 13 questions on foreign policy, with half of those questions going to former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas).

On top of that, only 11 percent of U.S. adults think national security and terrorism should be the top priority for the federal government, according to an NBC News and Wall Street Journal poll released last month.

Price said foreign policy likely wasn’t garnering national attention among voters because Democrats are largely on the same page. But he predicted it would become more of a factor as the election moves forward. 

“I tend to think that we’re not hearing about foreign policy in the same way that we’re hearing about health care because there’s a lot of common ground,” he said. “In the primary context, candidates tend to speak to what in some ways makes them unique or differentiates them from the pack.”

Kaine predicted that White House hopefuls were likely focused largely on domestic policy because those were the types of questions they are fielding from primary voters as they crisscross the country.

“I hope we can articulate a real clear version of how we’ll do a better job of keeping Americans safe. That’s how we flipped all these red seats to blue in Virginia last year,” Kaine said. “I think Americans want to hear that from a Democratic presidential candidate.”