While Republican presidential hopefuls warn of Iranian duplicity and Russian aggression and accuse President Obama of allowing the rise of Islamic State militants, the most experienced foreign-policy hand in the 2016 race says almost nothing about events beyond U.S. shores.
Hillary Rodham Clinton, who served four years as secretary of state and was known as a national security hawk in the Senate before that, is preparing for a campaign in which economic and kitchen-table issues are at the forefront.
The disconnect says much about the nature of the crowded Republican primary contest, in which conservative-leaning voters hold sway, and the different landscape that Clinton is navigating as she makes her second run for the Democratic nomination.
Republican primary voters tend to care about foreign policy at higher rates anyway, but this year overseas issues present opportunities for candidates to distinguish themselves from one another and paint Obama as weak.
Obama is as much or more of a foil for Republicans at this stage of the race, and the improving economy may leave less room to attack the president on domestic issues.
Clinton — who headed the State Department during Obama’s first term — is also a frequent target for Republican foreign-policy criticism, but she is confining her own critiques of GOP policies to domestic issues such as voting rights.
In her calculation, foreign policy will not be a central question during a primary contest against far-lesser-known Democratic rivals and will be far less important than in past elections when it comes to the general election.
There is not a word about foreign policy in a memo that Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook sent to key supporters this week. The memo is a primer for a speech Clinton will deliver Saturday to lay out a campaign agenda focused squarely on those in, or aspiring to, the American middle class. A preview video released by the campaign Friday made only a brief reference to her time as secretary of state, and foreign policy will probably get only a few lines in her speech.
“She will outline her vision for America’s future and her roadmap to help everyday American families get ahead and stay ahead,” Mook wrote.
Since entering the race April 12, Clinton has addressed social and economic issues such as same-sex marriage, the crush of college debt and paid family leave. She has called for overhauls of the nation’s immigration, criminal justice and voting systems.
Her only public remarks about foreign policy have come in response to news media questions about her tenure as secretary of state — she said she’s proud of it — and the changing nature of the conflict in Iraq.
She also has brusquely said she will let voters decide what they think about the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi, Libya, while she was the country’s top diplomat. She said she wants the State Department to release her e-mail correspondence about the Libyan terrorist attacks as quickly as possible.
Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, said he’s not positive Clinton will do an overseas swing ahead of the first primary contests early next year.
“I’m not sure she needs to,” Podesta said in an interview. “She doesn’t need to go to England to prove she knows the difference between the queen and the prime minister.”
Meanwhile, former Florida governor Jeb Bush is in Europe this week on a tour intended to look presidential. He arrived in Germany mere hours after Obama had left the annual summit of the Group of Seven wealthy nations, and he finishes the visit Friday in Estonia.
Fellow Republican hopefuls Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey and Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin have taken similar trips of late, all seeking a measure of commander-in-chief gravitas and a means to attack the sitting Democratic president. Walker arrives Friday in Canada for a six-day trip.
The passport parade to Europe, Israel and other strategic places is sure to continue as Republicans vie for the 2016 nomination.
At candidate forums in Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina and in television interviews, the GOP prospects focus on foreign crises such as the advance of the Islamic State terrorist group as threats to American security and leadership.
This is the first election cycle since 2000 in which foreign wars or the threat of terrorism have not been dominant issues for Democrats. Although the next president is likely to inherit problems including the ongoing Syrian civil war and the precarious future of the U.S.-backed government in Iraq, Clinton’s Democratic challengers aren’t saying much more about foreign policy than she is.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is running as an economic populist to Clinton’s left. Former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley is also trying to appeal to far-left ambivalence about Clinton, mostly on social and economic issues.
“He has talked about how he voted against the first Gulf War back in ’91, and he led opposition to the Iraq war,” Sanders spokesman Michael Briggs said. “But his basic concern is the 40-year decline of the American middle class.”
Former Rhode Island governor Lincoln Chafee has been the toughest on Clinton over her 2003 Senate vote in favor of the Iraq war. Chafee said Clinton “didn’t do her homework” ahead of that vote, which would become one of the main reasons she lost the 2008 nomination to Obama.
Former Virginia senator Jim Webb, a former Navy secretary, speaks frequently about American leadership and takes some indirect shots at Clinton. Webb has said he is considering a candidacy but has not made it official.
At least one of the six planned Democratic debates is likely to focus on foreign policy, which could give long shots a chance to show up Clinton. But Clinton does not appear concerned either about that risk or about a Republican focus on foreign policy that Democratic strategists contend is less about public opinion and more about opportunism.
When former Texas governor Rick Perry announced his candidacy last week, he put it this way, using a common acronym for the Islamic State: “The world has descended into a chaos of this president’s own making, while his White House loyalists construct an alternative universe where ISIS is contained.”
On Saturday in Boone, Iowa, at a gathering hosted by Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), one after another of the candidates talked about threats overseas.
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said he would be prepared to send U.S. troops back into Iraq to fight Islamic State forces and said the lack of leadership has been crippling to this country.
“I’m weary of being walked over,” he said. “I’m weary of being disrespected as a nation. I’m weary of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin. I’m weary of China taking advantage of us. I’m weary of terrorists growing in strength. . . . I’m tired of leading from behind. I want to lead from the front. I want America to come back.”
Walker described Islamic State as a virus. “I, on behalf of your children and mine, would rather take the fight to them instead of waiting until they bring the fight to us,” he said. “We need to lead from the front again in America.”
Businesswoman Carly Fiorina challenged the administration for trying to negotiate a deal with Iran to contain its nuclear ambitions. On her first day in office, she said, she would send a message to the supreme leader of Iran, warning that unless the Iranians opened up all their nuclear facilities, the United States would enact “the most punishing economic sanctions” yet.
Clinton advisers are braced for constant attacks on Obama’s record as a way to get to Clinton but see the GOP candidates as hamstrung when it comes to alternative policies, particularly the issue of sending in ground troops to try to destroy the Islamic State. They believe Clinton’s experience in foreign policy will outweigh the Republican criticisms and are confident that many voters see her as prepared to take strong action herself as president.
They say they are content for Republicans to try to make the general election about foreign policy, arguing that she would be able to counter their criticisms with relative ease. They believe that those who care most about making the election about foreign policy are largely Republicans who vote in the primaries and caucuses.
One Clinton adviser broke into laughter when asked whether the team anticipated that foreign policy would be the central issue of the campaign.
“If it were a foreign policy election, we would feel great about our chances,” the adviser said. “But we don’t see it as a foreign policy election.”