Will Foreign Policy Rear Its Head as Campaign Issue?

Will Foreign Policy Rear Its Head as Campaign Issue?

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - September 6, 2014

Jobs and the economy have been the dynamic duo of congressional campaigns the past couple of election cycles. They invariably rank at the top of voters’ concerns in polling, and are thus the integral focal point for lawmakers and candidates on the trail.

But there could be some competition this year. With conflict having erupted seemingly throughout the world -- from Israel/Gaza to Russia/Ukraine to Iraq/Syria (and possibly beyond, if Islamist terrorists make good on their threats) -- the public’s interest in and concern about foreign policy is rising.

Last week, “NBC Nightly News” Anchor Brian Williams opened coverage of these hotspots by noting that Americans may have “the sensation that our world is falling apart.” With just eight weeks to go until Election Day, the question is: Will that sensation register at the polls?

A number of Republican campaigns think it might, at least to some extent. While voters are not typically compelled by events abroad when casting midterm ballots, the GOP hopes their perceptions about the administration’s handling of the current crises feed into the case the party is making against the president (and, by proxy, Democratic candidates) regarding competency, trust, and management.

“For the first time in a long time, foreign policy, defense, and national security issues are back on the agenda of voters,” said Glen Bolger, a Republican pollster whose firm is working on several Senate races this year. While there aren’t many single-issue voters on foreign policy, Bolger says the situations abroad offer “just another piece of evidence that’s going to cause swing voters to be concerned about the president’s handling of the country … and that translates to his party.”

Foreign policy had been President Obama’s strong suit during the 2012 campaign. Now, according to a recent Pew survey, 54 percent of respondents see him as “not tough enough” on international affairs. The poll also found an uptick since last year of those saying the United States does too little in addressing global problems. A Wall Street Journal poll in early August found that 60 percent of respondents disapproved of the president’s handling of foreign policy.

With Congress set to return to work next week, foreign policy figures to take center stage in Washington, as lawmakers conduct hearings and debates in both the House and the Senate about how to proceed.

Congress’ attention will be focused on the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the terrorist organization responsible for the horrifying beheadings of two American journalists in Syria, and whether lawmakers will vote to authorize military actions there.

The administration took some bipartisan heat at the end of August for telling reporters the White House did not yet have a clear strategy for handling ISIL. This week, the president took pains to define the U.S. objective: to “dismantle” and “ultimately destroy” ISIL. Speaking at the NATO summit in Wales on Friday, he ruled out U.S. ground forces in Syria and said there was unanimous consent among U.S. allies for action. But a timetable has not been made public, and lawmakers are not yet sure whether they will need to vote on authorizing further airstrikes in Iraq.

“I have no doubt there will … be a debate,” Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Robert Menendez told MSNBC on Friday. But as far as a vote is concerned, “it really depends upon what the administration is asking for in terms of use of force.”

Congress will be in town for only a few weeks before recessing again in late September and won’t return until after the November election. A vote involving military intervention abroad could be an especially difficult one for Democratic members to cast. Last year, a request from the president to authorize force in Syria divided the party and was ultimately withdrawn.

With the future balance of power in the Senate up for grabs, those holding office and those seeking office had been cautious about weighing in on these contentious issues, especially during the August break. But with summer ending and the spotlight trained on Obama, Republicans have begun trying to connect their opponents to the muddle these crises have created.

Republican Senate candidate Scott Brown, running in New Hampshire, released an ad titled “No Strategy” that included old clips of Vice President Joe Biden praising the president’s foreign policy, and ends with a clip of Democratic incumbent Jeanne Shaheen hugging Obama.

Shaheen has distanced herself from the president by tweeting, “I do not believe ISIL is ‘manageable,’ agree these terrorists must be chased to the ‘gates of hell’” – references to a previous Obama comment and Biden’s call to bring those responsible for the journalists’ murders to justice.

Shaheen wrote a letter last week to Secretary of State John Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew urging them “to do everything in your power to stop the flow of money and foreign fighters” to the terrorist organization. Shaheen and New Hampshire colleague Kelly Ayotte introduced legislation honoring one of the slain journalists, James Foley, a native of their state.

Georgia Republican David Perdue has also tried to connect his opponent, Democrat Michelle Nunn, to the president on foreign policy. He pointed to a leaked campaign memo that articulated Nunn’s position on Israel as “to be determined.” Nunn voiced support last year for military strikes in Syria, and has called upon the president to “quickly develop the right military strategy,” according to an interview with the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

Foreign policy’s emergence on the campaign trail also has something to do with the fact that several GOP Senate candidates are combat veterans or have military experience. Joni Ernst, a National Guard commander in Iowa who did a tour of duty in Iraq, has called upon the president to deliver a clearer strategy for the region.

For Tom Cotton, a former combat veteran with tours in Iraq an Afghanistan, foreign policy has always been a feature of his campaign to unseat Mark Pryor in Arkansas, largely because of that bio bullet point. Now the emphasis has increased. "As Tom travels across Arkansas, voters tell him they're worried about the chaos and unrest around the world. They're concerned about the fact that ISIS is crucifying Christians and beheading Americans,” said his spokesman, David Ray.

Races in those two states are close and will play a critical role in determining which party controls the Senate next year. But it is unclear how foreign policy will play in both places if the candidates’ biographies are set aside. With most campaigns now in full swing, it remains to be seen whether the issue becomes more of a focal point. So far, there haven’t been many campaign ads on foreign policy, as the economy, health care, jobs, and women’s issues have held sway. But in an election that lacks one prominent issue, heightened public perceptions of world events could change all that.

For their part, Democrats don’t envision foreign policy playing a substantial role in the elections, and point to Republican candidates’ lack of specifics on how to address the crises.

“This is where the dismal Republican brand becomes a real issue for their candidates,” said a national Democratic strategist. “Should military action ultimately become a part of the debate, Republicans don’t fare well here because voters don’t trust them to lead.”

This story was updated Sept. 6 at 10:32 a.m.

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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