It is now one of the stipulated facts of this election cycle that Bernie Sanders doesn’t place too high a priority on foreign policy. Hillary Clinton’s campaign started using this as a talking point against the good senator from Vermont a week or so ago. Max Fisher, in a Vox essay defending Sanders, writes this paragraph:
The issue is not over whose foreign policy is better, but rather over the fact that Sanders appears to have no foreign policy at all. He has no direct experience, no major policy proposals, not even, as best anyone can tell, a single foreign policy staffer or adviser. When asked about foreign policy, he tends to change the subject or merely argue for maintaining Obama administration policies.
If the Sanders campaign has responded to attacks like these, I’d wager that they’d respond by talking about economic inequality again.
If there’s one thing members of the foreign policy community don’t like, it’s when candidates don’t listen to them, As Sanders’s poll numbers have gone up, so has the murmuring.
But Fisher argues that this isn’t necessarily the big deal that some on the foreign policy community would say it is:
It is true that Sanders has ducked and avoided what are conventionally considered even the bare minimum requirements for proving competence on foreign policy. But I can’t bring myself to buy into the consensus that he is therefore incompetent and unprepared to run U.S. foreign policy.
Rather, it seems to me that the process by which we demand a candidate prove his or her foreign policy credentials is sort of artificial and silly, that Sanders has made a debatable but at least potentially rational tactical decision to sidestep that process, and that this really only tells us so much about how a Sanders administration would conduct foreign policy.
Fisher’s thesis is that, tactically, Democrats don’t care too much about national security, so Sanders is wise to avoid it for now. Furthermore, should Sanders get the nomination, the Democratic Party’s foreign policy machine will simply wheel in behind him and that will be that.
Fisher suggests the silliness of the foreign policy part of the invisible primary by pointing out that after Scott Walker got burned a few times talking about foreign policy to Republican elites, he responded by hiring some advisers, and presto change-o, not a problem. So it’s all just kabuki theater, meant to signal to elites that he knows this is a big deal. But my memory of Walker’s foreign policy performance is that it didn’t improve by all that much, and this seriously hurt his standing in the first half of last year. The issue wasn’t that Walker didn’t try to play catch-up; it’s that first impressions matter, and Walker made a really bad one on foreign policy. Which suggests that foreign affairs is not an issue that candidates can cram on just before the election like pulling an all-nighter on a college paper.
Fisher is correct that should Sanders get the nomination, the Democratic foreign policy apparatus would be willing to support him. Indeed, my Bloggingheads partner Heather Hurlburt, who is advising the Clinton campaign, pretty much confirmed that in our last diavlog.
But would Sanders accept their advice? There’s this series of tweets that Sanders sent out Wednesday that keep nagging at me:
You can be a moderate. You can be a progressive. But you cannot be a moderate and a progressive.
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) February 3, 2016
The TPP is a continuation of our disastrous trade policies that have devastated manufacturing cities and towns all over this country.
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) February 3, 2016
Furthermore, in the CNN Democratic Party town hall last night, Sanders ripped into Clinton not just on TPP but also for NAFTA and for supporting permanent normal trade relations with China. As a progressive, Sanders might even have some cause to oppose some of those trade deals. What I keep wondering, however, is whether Sanders thinks a progressive foreign policy doctrine exists that is distinct from Clinton. That’s clearly his campaign message whenever foreign policy comes up.
This distinction can matter on foreign policy. Even though Clinton has moved left on trade, she hasn’t bashed existing trade agreements the way that Sanders has. And I’m extremely curious about what Sanders wants to do about changing the current trade system. If he wants the United States to renegotiate World Trade Organization membership, for example, that’s just as obnoxious as anything Donald Trump has proposed this cycle. This will matter going forward as well, since Fisher’s colleague Matthew Yglesias points out that the U.S. trade and investment partnership with Europe will be on the docket in 2017.
Fisher might very well be correct that not a whole lot separates Sanders and Clinton on foreign policy. But neither Sanders nor Clinton is acting like that’s true, and on foreign economic policy I don’t think it is true. But no one will know unless and until Sanders actually talks more about this subject.