Is Foreign Policy the GOP’s 2016 Issue?

Is Foreign Policy the GOP’s 2016 Issue?

By Hastings Wyman –

The economy is steadily improving, with the unemployment rate, which is the key political indicator, now at 5.3%, the lowest it has been since April 2008, before President Obama took office. The Supreme Court okayed Obamacare, and with its rocky start well-behind it, the healthcare program has gained public acceptance. The president used his executive powers to ameliorate, if not solve, the nation’s immigration problems. His recognition of Cuba has gone over well, not only with some US businesses anxious to sell products to the island regime, but also with Hispanic voters, including many Cuban Americans. Even South Carolina, instead of the defiant middle finger it usually gives to the federal government, has removed its Confederate battle flag from the statehouse grounds.

Thus, whether the voters agree with the details of everything that’s been happening in recent months, the blockages in the arteries of the nation’s government have been dislodged and the public can see that we are moving on, and probably forward. Maybe we can end the gridlock, stop the endless arguing.

But where does that leave the Republican Party, anxious to reclaim the White House after eight years of Democratic rule?

It leaves one issue where things are not going well on the Democrats’ watch. That’s foreign policy, where likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, as Secretary of State, has been almost as much of an architect as the president. Obama’s emphasis when he took office on a diplomatic surge in the Middle East has been an abject failure. The line he drew in Syria has long since been crossed, with no significant US response. His and Clinton’s support for – without US troops, to be sure – the anti-Gaddafi rebels in Libya ultimately resulted in the catastrophe in Benghazi as well as the export of ISIS-type terrorists into neighboring Tunisia. Egypt, where he and Clinton were once again cheerleaders for the so-called Arab Spring, descended into an Islamist dictatorship, since supplanted by another authoritarian – though pro-American – regime. Iraq, where Obama withdrew troops against the advice of American generals, is more a mess than ever, as is Afghanistan.

President Obama can still hold out hope for a nuclear treaty with Iran, but the signs aren’t that encouraging. Even if Secretary of State John Kerry can complete a deal, the likelihood is that the US will have conceded so many points to the Khamenei regime that a persuasive case can be made it will have been appeasement, not a prelude to peace.

The problem for Republicans is that even with the Democratic foreign policy – much of it with Hillary Clinton at the State Department’s helm –a major mess, voters don’t much care about the subject.

In February of this year, a Gallup survey found that terrorism was the number one issue named by 8% of Americans, the highest since 2010, but still ranking fifth behind mostly economic issues. Two similar issues, Iraq/ISIS and national security, received 4% each, ranking 11th and 12th. The new high for this issue was attributable to the then-recent killing of the Charlie journalists in Paris.

Essentially, said a Gallup analysis, Americans become concerned about foreign policy/defense related issues following a major incident, such as the 9/11 attacks or the Benghazi attack.

Thus, in May, a New York Times survey asked respondents an open-ended question about “the most important problem facing this country today.” Here again, the economy, jobs, social issues, race relations led the way. Terrorism, ISIS, foreign policy and similar categories did not make the 3% cut to be listed in a separate category.

Even though a March survey, taken by the polling firm OnMessage (R) for the GOP, found that national security issues ranked higher than economic concerns, the share was still 22%, not enough to win an election. Moreover, this was not an open-ended survey; respondents were given a list of issues, in which foreign policy was lumped in with terrorism.

That may be why US Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) is the only Republican presidential contender who has made defense and foreign policy the raisons d’etre for his candidacy. “Ready To Be Commander-in-Chief On Day One,” is the headline on his campaign website. “Faced with threats from around the world, American needs a leader ready to take command,” it continues. When CNN was interviewing Graham about the Confederate flag, he deftly changed the focus to the ISIS threat to America.

The low interest in such issues may help explain why, even with John McCain’s support, Graham has yet to move up in the polls, ranking 13th in the polling averages being used to determine the ten Republican candidates eligible to participate in the Fox News debate next month or in CNN’s first debate.

Another reason for Graham’s poor showing may be the solution he proposes for dealing with the nation’s enemies in the Middle East: Sending in 20,000 US troops to Iraq and Syria. Hawks have been the dominant faction among Republicans since the end of World War II, but as the Middle East quagmire has gotten deeper, many GOPers have reverted to the isolationist stance popular in conservative circles in the 1930s, essentially favoring staying out of foreign wars.

It is too soon to predict what major issues, domestic or foreign, will be on the front burner in the fall of 2016, but for now, the GOP’s strongest case may lie with the issue voters care least about. Stay tuned.