Something that hasn’t received a lot of attention in the initial rush of attention to the Paul Ryan selection is the extraordinary lack of foreign policy and national security experience the Republican ticket offers. That would be unusual at any point, but it’s even more surprising they would have such a ticket while the United States remains at war.
It’s hard to imagine a ticket with fewer foreign policy credentials. Governors typically have difficulty establishing their national security bone fides, but many of them have built up some sort of experience over their careers. Ronald Reagan was a longtime anti-communist crusader. Bill Clinton had been involved, for whatever it was worth, in Democratic Leadership Council foreign policy initiatives. Jimmy Carter didn’t have much, but he did have a significant naval career. Mitt Romney? Well, the Olympics is an international event, but it’s a stretch I think to call that foreign policy experience. At best he’s on par with Clinton, Reagan, Carter, Michael Dukakis, George W. Bush and, perhaps, Thomas Dewey, at least among postwar nominees; governors Adlai Stevenson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt both had relevant executive branch experience.
Each of those other governors, however, sought to make up for it, symbolically at least, with a running mate with credentials. George H.W. Bush and Dick Cheney were both experienced executive branch national security figures. Al Gore and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Lloyd Bentsen and Walter Mondale also had been involved in some relevant issues in the Senate. Neither of Dewey’s running mates added much, however. Both Ohio Gov. John Bricker in 1944 and California Gov. Earl Warren in 1948 had at least served in the military during World War I, and both of them had been wartime governors, which I suppose is something, but I don’t know of any additional credentials they brought.
Even before World War II, most tickets included some foreign policy experience. The last one I see with as little as Romney/Ryan would be Woodrow Wilson and Indiana Gov. Thomas Marshall in 1912. I’ll leave it to others to judge how running an Olympics compares with Wilson’s academic knowledge of foreign affairs; neither impresses me as particularly relevant.
Of course, Barack Obama had little national security or foreign policy experience in 2008. But his rise in Illinois was in large part associated with opposition to the war in Iraq, and he made it his business to get involved in national security issues in the Senate. He then added Joe Biden, then chair of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, to his ticket.
To tell the truth, it’s not at all clear that a running mate’s experience in foreign policy matters at all in cases such as Romney, Clinton or Carter. Any president is going to have experienced men and women in place in the White House and the key executive branch agencies, and I’m not sure why a vice president’s experience matters; if Barack Obama was going to avoid serious foreign policy errors, I can’t see why having Joe Biden around would have prevented them in a way that his national security adviser, secretaries of defense and state and other key figures wouldn’t. Still, the norm is to use vice presidential experience as part of how a governor excuses his own lack of such experience, and Mitt Romney certainly didn’t do that. Depending on how one scores these things, it’s certainly the ticket with the least foreign policy and national security experience since at least 1948, and perhaps as far back as 1912.