Shadow Government

What, me worry? About foreign-policy?

Getting a shout-out on Drezner’s blog can now be crossed off my bucket list. (What’s next? Ed. After Dr…comes Du…Dunking in a basketball game.) The New York Times quoted me as worrying that Republican candidates were in danger of surrendering issue ownership on national security. Dan, a.k.a. the Maestro (but not that Maestro), wrote reassuringly ...

Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Getting a shout-out on Drezner’s blog can now be crossed off my bucket list. (What’s next? Ed. After Dr…comes Du…Dunking in a basketball game.) The New York Times quoted me as worrying that Republican candidates were in danger of surrendering issue ownership on national security. Dan, a.k.a. the Maestro (but not that Maestro), wrote reassuringly that the Republicans were likely to nominate someone like Romney, who has shown himself to be fairly adept on foreign policy. I almost always agree with Dan, and when I don’t I usually come to regret it, so let me state up front, I agree with him. But I still think it is worth reminding the Republican primary candidates to do their homework.

The general election may be decided on domestic policy and the economy, but it would be no bad thing if the Republican primary was decided on national security. By this I mean that Republicans should quickly jettison anyone who flunks the commander-in-chief test: can you trust this man or woman with the life and death decisions that land on the president’s desk in the Oval Office? That is more important than whether the candidate signed this or that pledge, or whether the candidate compromised to get half-loaf policy decisions through a balky legislature. As disenchanted as the American electorate may be with President Obama, they are not going to vote for a Republican whom they believe cannot be trusted to fulfill the commander-in-chief duties responsibly.

This is good advice any year. It is especially true when the country is still at war. And it may be extra-especially true this year, which could be a man-bites-dog year in terms of the issue advantages of the parties. The Republicans are doing pretty well on all the issues, including many domestic issues where Democrats usually have the advantage. But when it comes to candidate-specific trust, this may be the first election in decades that the Democrats have a comparative advantage on national security, not the economy.

I say comparative advantage, because Republicans could well have an absolute advantage on both. But if I remember my Ricardo (this Ricardo, not that Ricardo), comparative advantage drives trade. Obama’s 49-44 approval rating on foreign policy looks much better than his 30-67 approval rating on the economy and so he is likely to play up the former rather than the latter. Put it this way, do you think Obama’s speechwriters will write more applause lines containing the words "health care reform" or "Osama Bin Laden"?

I have heard Republicans tell me that Obama won’t be able to run on national security experience because no Republican candidate will be as inexperienced as candidate Obama was in 2008. I can think of a candidate or two who could give Obama of 2008 a run for his money on the inexperience contest, but that is the wrong way to think about the matter anyway. Republicans aren’t running against Obama of 2008. They are running against Obama of 2012 and Obama of 2012 has had quite a lot of national security and foreign policy experience.

Not all of the experience is good, of course, but it is substantial nonetheless. And already, White House spinners are straight-facedly leveling the same not-ready-for-the-job critiques at Republicans that Hillary Clinton leveled at Obama four years ago.

So yes, Dan, if Republicans nominate Romney, I can rest easy about the Republican brand. But all of the candidates, including the eventual losers, could help matters by doing their part to reassure voters that Republicans have earned their trust in this vital area.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.