Daniel W. Drezner

Could foreign policy actually affect the 2012 presidential election?

Could foreign policy actually affect the 2012 presidential election?

As Fred Kaplan observed in Slate over the weekend, for the first time in a loooooooong time, the Democrats feel more secure on foreign policy and national security issues than the Republicans.  When John Kerry starts making derisive references to Rocky IV, you know something strange is going on.  As for Barack Obama, his convention acceptance speech was kind of middlin’ — except when he started talking about foreign policy.  As Kaplan noted: 

President Obama was even more casual in what can fairly be called, at least on these issues, his contempt for the Republican nominee. Romney’s depiction of Russia as America’s “number-one geostrategic foe” reveals that he’s “still stuck in a Cold War mind-warp,” Obama said—adding, in a reference to Romney’s disastrous trip to England this summer, “You might not be ready for diplomacy with Beijing if you can’t visit the Olympics without insulting our closest ally.”

Romney and Ryan “are new to foreign policy,” Obama said, barely containing a smirk. Yes, Obama was once new to it as well, though not as new—he’d at least served actively on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and he picked a running mate, Joe Biden, who was seasoned. The more pertinent point the Democrats were making at their convention, though, is that Obama is not remotely new now.

Now, Peter Feaver will dissent, but short of another terrorist attack he’s not going to move public opinion on this issue:  every head-to-head poll has given Barack Obama a decided advantage on foreign policy and national security.  Every one.   

The thing is, I’ve stipulated over and over than Americans don’t care all that much about foreign policy. So one has to wonder whether this really matters.  It’s an election about the economy, and there’s no way to sugarcoat the anemic job growth as of late.  So this foreign policy advantage won’t amount to much, right? 

Probably….  but there might be two ways in which foreign policy might affect the electoral outcome.  The first, which as been playing out over the last year or so, is that Mitt Romney’s relative competency on foreign policy has declined dramatically — to the point where voters might believe that he’s simply "below the bar."   

Let’s roll the clock back a year.  When Romney was in the GOP primary squaring off against foreign affairs neophytes like Herman Cain and Rick Perry, it was pretty easy for him to look competent by comparison.  Romney had gone to the bother of collecting foreign policy advisors and produced a real, live foreign policy white paper.  Meanwhile, Newt Gingrich obsessed about EMPs.  Compared to his GOP opponents, Romney seemed competent by comparison

Since the primary season ended, however, Romney has badly bungled the foreign policy side of his campaign.  Whoever was wrangling the foreign policy advisors couldn’t get them to shut up when they felt on the outs, so they kept on leaking — sometimes to flacks who couldn’t quite connect the dots.  Romney’s public pronouncements seemed logic-free and designed to play to the GOP base.  Then came July’s foreign trip, during which Romney managed to bungle what should have been some lovely photo-ops.  During and immediately after this trip, by the way, Obama doubled his lead over Romney in the Real Clear Politics Poll Average. His VP choice, Paul Ryan, has even less foreign policy experience than Romney — and no, voting for the Iraq war doesn’t count.  Finally, at the RNC, Romney failed to talk about the troops in Afghanistan, or veterans’ issues, or war more generally — the first time a GOP nominee has failed to do so since 1952

At the same time that Romney’s foreign policy "performance" has declined, the quality of his competition has improved.  Romney isn’t running against a former pizza exec now; he’s running against a sitting president who oversaw the end of the war in Iraq, the successful prosecution of the Libya intervention, a rebalancing of American foreign policy towards the Pacific Rim, and the death of Osama bin Laden.    

The trajectory matters because it calls Romney’s basic competency on this issue into question, and because it complicates his fall campaign.  No, voters don’t care a lot about foreign policy, but they do want to be comfortable that the guy they vote for can handle the commander-in-chief test.  A year ago, Mitt Romney would have cleared that hurdle with the American public.  Now I’m not so sure.    

Could the Romney campaign fix this?  Sure, they could criticize the president and refine their own positions.  But every day the Romney campaign tries to repair the damage is a day they’re not talking about the economy.  And if voters start thinking about secondary issues, including foreign policy, then Romney could lose some votes. 

So the competency question is the first reason foreign policy might matter in this election.  I’ll blog about the second reason… oh… about 26 hours from now.