Sanders Closes In on Clinton in Iowa Caucus. But Senators Aren’t Feeling the Bern.
From Iran to the Islamic State, Sanders’s own Democratic colleagues say his lack of foreign policy creds are due to a lack of focus — not naiveté.
With the Iowa presidential caucus kickoff hours away Monday, Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton has only a slight edge — 4 percentage points — over Bernie Sanders, according to a national poll average compiled by Real Clear Politics. After months of seeing the Vermont senator slowly eat at away at her lead, and even pull ahead in some polls, Clinton’s campaign has been battering Sanders’s electability and questioning whether he is ready to serve as commander in chief.
It’s a high-risk strategy shift for the former secretary of state, who is the embodiment of the Democratic establishment, amid an anti-establishment mood. But in a troubling sign for Sanders’s path to the nomination beyond Iowa and his neighboring New Hampshire, where he’s heavily favored, it seems to be working — at least among his fellow senators.
Clinton’s camp has put Sanders’s recent comments that the U.S. should “move as aggressively as we can to normalize relations with Iran” at the center of this strategy. While his statements are somewhat more nuanced than the danger the Clinton campaign makes them out to be, her tactic is not surprising: Not only is Iran one of the largest geopolitical challenges for the U.S., it also happens to be one of the more divisive foreign policy issues among Democrats in Congress who are otherwise loosely united on national security.
Clinton can play both sides, touting both her early role in pushing the Iran nuclear deal to its supporters while at the same time signaling to hawks that she’ll be tougher on Tehran than President Barack Obama. It’s this latter group, the party’s foreign policy power center, most likely to express alarm at Sanders’s statements on Iran, and deny him credibility on a key national security platform moving forward.
Yet even some of those Senate Democrats said Sanders’s foreign policy chops aren’t as much of a liability as they are simply not his main forte in Congress.
Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) said he “strongly disagrees” normalizing diplomatic relations with Iran for now. “I deeply distrust Iran, I think the majority of the American people distrust Iran, and I think they should,” said Coons, who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Still, he described Sanders as a “passionate advocate for America’s veterans” who is “deeply concerned about American security and America’s place in the world.”
Fresh back from stumping for Clinton in Iowa, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said it’s not that Sanders is naive on foreign policy — it’s just not his “passion.” Sen. Dick Durbin, the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat who stomped around in the Iowa and New Hampshire snow for Obama in 2008 but supports Clinton this time around, sounded a kind if lukewarm note toward Sanders: “I don’t believe I would raise any questions about his competence to lead the nation.”
Sen. Bob Menendez, (D-N.J.) the former top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations panel, sharply diverges with his Vermont colleague on Iran and other issues such as Cuba and says Clinton “has far greater experience.”
“Obviously foreign policy and national security issues is not the foundation of Sen. Sanders’s campaign, or his focus in the U.S. Senate,” Menendez told Foreign Policy. Menendez, however, made clear his break with the Bern when asked whether he agreed with him on moving to normalize U.S. relations with Iran. “Uh, the greatest state sponsor of terrorism still in the world? That’s not something I would do,” Menendez said.
Those comments became all the more notable last week after Sanders described Menendez as a sort of informal foreign policy advisor. Last Thursday, Sanders cited casual talks with Menendez, Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, and Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes in describing his foreign policy brain trust.
It remains unclear just who is advising Sanders’s campaign on foreign policy in a race where Clinton holds an indomitable lead in the “invisible primary” of endorsements by sitting lawmakers in Congress. Sanders spokesman Michael Briggs didn’t respond to FP’s requests for a list of national security advisors, and multiple experts who have been cited by name as helping have either disputed or distanced themselves from suggestions they play a role in the upstart campaign.
It’s common for lawmakers to seek advice from colleagues on issues outside their own expertise, and experienced foreign policy Democrats such as Cardin and Menendez consistently brief their party’s fellow senators. But one Cardin staffer was unaware of any direct advising that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s current top Democrat has given Sanders’s campaign.
“Sen. Cardin fields questions from his colleagues informally on the floor, before and after hearings, and wherever they might run into each other,” said the staffer, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the politically-touchy issue.
Cardin has already endorsed Clinton; Menendez has not (though he was an early backer in her 2008 campaign). A Menendez aide also was unaware of any meetings with Sanders, his office, or his campaign.
Similarly, Rhodes told CNN he’s given Sanders two “standard briefings” on the Islamic State and the Iran nuclear deal — as he does for most Democratic senators on thorny matters of foreign policy. And on Sunday, former Assistant Defense Secretary and Center for American Progress senior fellow Lawrence J. Korb said he’s only recently spoken once to Sanders — despite being named as one of the “many, many, many people” his campaign consults with on national security.
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