As the 2020 Democratic primary unfolds, many people are saying that the candidates need to talk more about foreign policy. And I’m not just making this up either! Earlier this month my Post colleague E.J. Dionne Jr. relied on a Center for American Progress report to argue that “foreign policy is a genuine vulnerability for President Trump.” Also this month, Foreign Policy editor in chief Jonathan Tepperman wrote an essay titled “The 2020 Candidates Aren’t Talking About Foreign Policy. They Need to Start.”
Of course, even these folks acknowledged that this argument was hardly a slam dunk. Tepperman acknowledged that “very few U.S. presidents have won office by building their campaigns around international themes.” The Center for American Progress report that Dionne referenced noted that “traditional language from foreign policy experts... uniformly fell flat with voters in our [focus] groups. ... When asked what the phrase ‘maintaining the liberal international order’ indicated to them, all but one of the participants in our focus groups drew a blank. Voters across educational lines simply did not understand what any of these phrases and ideas meant or implied.”
This disinterest has matched the experience of the candidates themselves. A few weeks ago, my Post colleague David Weigel reported about the “nonexistent” foreign policy debate going on in the primary, but for the very good reason that voters did not seem to care: “According to Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s campaign, which keeps track of what gets asked at public appearances, just 14 of the 354 questions the senator from Massachusetts has taken at town halls have concerned foreign policy.”
This disinterest has been matched by the candidates themselves. I perused the campaign websites for Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg for any signs of foreign policy. Biden had little beyond the phrase “It’s time for respected leadership on the world stage.” Buttigieg had a boilerplate paragraph. Warren and Sanders did not have much either, which is surprising given that they have both written longer and more serious essays elsewhere. I was surprised to find that Harris’s website had the longest foreign policy section, though most of it was pretty anodyne.
So, does this mean foreign policy will not play much of a role in the 2020 primary? Actually, my hunch is that it will, for two reasons. One is that, as I noted last fall, there are genuine disagreements over foreign policy between the likes of Sanders/Warren compared to Biden/Harris. Sanders and Warren are more progressive, while Biden and Harris sound like liberal internationalists. These disagreements are very likely to be publicly aired at some point, particularly once the debates begin.
The second reason is that in a field of two dozen, there will be a strong incentive for less visible candidates to do something to stand out. Foreign policy is a perfect foil for disagreement in the primary debates to come. Domestic policy disputes are riskier, because most issues like health care or education have powerful constituencies within the party. Everyone acknowledges that foreign policy is an important subject, but few Democrats think of themselves as single-issue foreign affairs voters. Articulating disagreements in this arena is perfectly appropriate. It is a safe zone for respectable disagreement on the debate stage.
In other words, I expect the upcoming televised debates to feature a fair amount of foreign policy skirmishes — not because voters care about this issue but because foreign policy has become a plaything for domestic politics, and this is about domestic politics. Which means I will have my whiskey bottle nearby when I watch them.