March 22, 2016
Yesterday, four of the five remaining presidential candidates addressed the AIPAC convention in Washington D.C. Yesterday, President Obama and Fidel Castro’s brother gave a joint press conference in Havana, Cuba.
Today, ISIS-affiliated terrorists set off bombs at the airport and a subway station in Brussels, home of the EU, and a traditional attack point for those seeking to subjugate Western Europe.
In response, Obama went to a baseball game between the Cuban national team and Tampa Bay Rays. Some will agree with this approach, some will condemn it. During an in-game interview with ESPN, the president said he believes pushing forward with his schedule (after speaking to the Belgian prime minister) was the best response.
Whether it is how America works with Israel, the opening to Cuba, or dealing with the continuing threat from ISIS, foreign policy is back front and center in the presidential contest.
We have five candidates with varying chances of winning. We have five completely different approaches of handling foreign policy. We also have a president who will serve as something of a lightning rod.
After today, Republicans only vote once, in Wisconsin, before April 19, twice before April 26. Democrats can say the same once they are done with a few caucuses on Saturday.
Though we’ll still hear plenty about brokered conventions, controlling the choice of delegates at state conventions, and keeping Donald Trump from the magic 1237, the change in schedule combined with recent events will make foreign policy/national security a focal point for the next while.
We know what the Obama approach is. The past couple days have shown it in full. He’s not willing to commit major ground forces to attack ISIS in Syria, Iraq or elsewhere. Major terror events continue to happen around the world. The homeland has remained relatively, though far from completely safe.
When events like Brussels happen, Obama seeks calm. “No Drama Obama” isn’t going to make a stirring speech about what just happened. After San Bernardino he felt obligated to address the country and looked and sounded like he was fulfilling a chore.
Statistics bear him out. Americans will experience more fatalities on the road today than people killed in the terror attack. Americans will murder about as many people today as the terrorists did. Emotions are a more difficult matter.
For many, especially those voting in GOP primaries, the Trump approach sounds better. Lock the border down, especially to Muslims. Knock the hell out of ISIS. Force NATO to pull their collective weight rather than relying on the United States for almost everything.
Not only are Obama and Trump responding very differently, but it’s hard to get many Americans to consider any possible merits in the opposing approach. If you believe it’s important to protect the rights of Muslim Americans, you’re likely opposed to stringent visa restrictions.
If you think it’s important to do everything possible to secure the border, not just the southern one with Mexico, but all points of entry, from airports to shipping ports, to the Canadian border, you’re probably willing to accept a few side-effects for Muslims in America or those seeking to enter.
The first group thinks the second group is understating the danger to law-abiding Muslim Americans and overstating the threat from terrorists. The second group believes the opposite.
Both have a point. The majority of mass killings in America over the past several years were not initiated by Muslim terrorists, either American or foreign. However, Jews are still the victims of more hate crimes than Muslims are.
Lindsey Graham was the candidate most willing to send troops to the Middle East to directly attack ISIS. He got no traction. Few are suggesting a Draft Graham movement if the GOP convention winds up deadlocked.
Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio were more willing to intervene than most. Chris Christie was the most overtly focused on homeland security. The first two are walking around with a scarlet L on their chest, the third is currently starring as Trump’s Sancho Panza.
Only one remaining candidate has regularly advocated regime change. Hillary Clinton. Her opponent, someone who’s most comfortable foreign policy topic is opposing regime change, skipped the chance to address the most prominent pro-Israeli lobbying group in the country to forage for votes in Arizona and Utah.
Will he start shifting his focus to world issues, or, with has back to the wall, and fighting for relevance, will he continue to steer most questions and topics back to Citizens United, the control billionaires have on the political process, and changing the tax structure?
We don’t have a foreign policy consensus in the United States. Neither major party has one either. Clinton is the candidate most Democrats see as the more qualified commander-in-chief. When the previous round of terror attacks hit, her poll numbers improved.
She’s implicitly, explicitly and otherwise running for Obama’s third term. It’s a major point of differentiation between her and Sanders. But foreign policy, the thing she was responsible for in his first term, is a wider point of difference than domestic policy, where Hillary is now running to his left.
So the person Democrats most trust on foreign policy is the candidate who is to the president’s right on the issue, and has often indicated she would do things differently. Overall, those same Democrats say in exit polls they’re looking for someone to either continue forward with Obama’s policies or move leftward.
The candidate who fits that description usually doesn’t want to spend much time on the issue. Between his reluctance, and the push to declare Hillary the presumptive nominee and have her pivot to the general election, his oxygen is looking very restricted.
Yesterday, Clinton gave a very comfortable sounding, standard, pro-Israeli speech to AIPAC. It’s a group she’s comfortable with, a community she’s spent plenty of time in over the past few decades. She sounded like exactly the type of Democrat pro-Israeli Jews are comfortable voting for, someone more friendly than the current administration.
She moved from traditional talking points, to attacking Trump, and back. It was a definite preview of General Election Hillary. While Clinton is an uneven speaker, often struggling to find the best tone, this was not an example of that problem.
Focusing on foreign policy and national security is easier for her than trying to rally the crowd in a stump speech. Hillary now has a major speech on counterterrorism scheduled for tomorrow at Stanford University. It’s now up to her opponents, be they Sanders or potential fall contenders, to throw her off stride.
Given her involvement in the administration that contributed to many of the current conditions, that’s not an impossibility. But voters will hear very different arguments depending on the opposition candidate speaking.
In November and early December, Trump was able to block out most of his GOP peers. At the time, a dozen candidates were still in the race, making it harder for individual non-Trumps to get airtime. Will Cruz and Kasich get, or create an opportunity for voters to hear them?
At AIPAC, each got a hearing. Each were shown on CNN in full. Trump gave his first TelePrompTer speech. While he was very distinct from Cruz and Kasich, it was a slightly different version of The Donald. He still ad-libbed on several occasions and the speech was written in Trumpian language, but it was closer to a presidential-style address.
Cruz spoke in biblical terms, in this case the Old Testament, rather than the new. He faced an interesting test. As a strongly pro-Israel senator, he was able to express full and unconditional support without going back on any previous statements.
But his evangelical style isn’t an ideal fit for a Jewish audience. Despite a tone more suited to Liberty University, he registered very favorably by the time the speech was over, receiving several standing ovations.
It was a chance for Cruz to give a foreign policy speech more focused on what he would do as president than contrasting himself with Trump. In contrast, clips today showed him criticizing Trump’s strategy and linking his questions about the role of NATO to the attacks.
It’s a reasonable critique, but also another example of viewers seeing Trump speak and Cruz respond, rather than a full view of the Cruz doctrine like AIPAC attendees received. Ted is caught in a trap where watching cable networks will make it appear Trump and Clinton are engaged in a debate Cruz is commenting on.
Kasich actually got the best overall response at AIPAC, giving more specific texture and detail to his speech than the others. He connected with the crowd and may have surprised some with the depth of his feeling towards Israel.
Unlike the others, he did not use a prompter, reading his prepared address off of old-fashioned paper. It was both the most presidential he’s sounded and still very Kasichy. Until he wins somewhere outside Ohio, his comments will not receive the same coverage others do.
However, without the coverage, he may not win anywhere. Of all remaining candidates, he’s most likely to advocate sending considerable quantities of American troops after ISIS.
He’s also most likely to want a large international coalition, and most likely to want to reinforce the relationship with NATO. I wouldn’t go so far as to say he’s Trump’s direct opposite, but there are strong differences. Cruz fits somewhere in between.
For each of the three, they need to balance critiquing the president, attacking and contrasting with Clinton, and separating from GOP competitors. If you’re Trump, this isn’t very hard. He keeps things simple and has an endless supply of media attention.
Cruz and Kasich have a difficult balancing act. With a couple weeks before Wisconsin, there’s no telling how the whole scenario plays out. The last major terrorist event in Europe was followed by domestic terror.
Non-Trump candidates will need to plot a strategy and stay ready to respond and adjust as events change, while making sure to get enough coverage for their full approach to foreign affairs. Not easy.
Wisconsin is shaping up as a defining vote on the Republican side. If Cruz wins, he likely buries Kasich’s chance at becoming a viable Trump alternative. If Kasich wins, especially if Cruz loses Arizona, the reverse may occur.
If Trump wins, he becomes extremely likely to get to 1237, or at least close enough to make attempts to block him exceedingly difficult.
The AIPAC speeches gave us an idea of how the GOP candidates are thinking about and communicating about foreign policy. The Cuba trip reminds us the president is still a factor in the foreign policy debate. Brussels brought ISIS back into the picture after fading for the past couple months.
As Republicans head towards a decisive Wisconsin, and Bernie Sanders attempts to hang on to relevance, we’ve re-entered the foreign policy realm. We’ll learn plenty about the candidates over the next couple weeks. Just don’t ask me to predict how they’ll do.