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It’s the Economy, Stupid… Or Is It?

Five foreign policy curveballs that could swing the election.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

It has become an article of faith in this presidential campaign — backed by relentless polling — that the state of the economy will be decisive. Tell me the unemployment rate in October (or perhaps sooner) and I’ll tell you who will be president for the next four years. Sure, the health care debate will rally forces on both sides and there will be important but narrower issues like immigration, gay marriage, and gun control that appeal to particular voters. But despite Mitt Romney’s plans to take a summer jaunt to Europe and Israel, the conventional wisdom holds that foreign policy will not be central. It is background music.

Yet history tells us otherwise. In at least half the presidential elections over the last 50 years — during war or peace, prosperity or recession — issues of foreign policy and national security have had a major impact.

Much of it revolves around the idea of leadership and the threshold question of whether the voters will accept a candidate as a plausible and steady commander-in-chief. In 1964, Barry Goldwater failed to survive President Lyndon B. Johnson’s eviscerating ad portraying a child playing with a daisy — with a mushroom cloud rising in the background. The message wasn’t  subtle: Whose finger did voters want on the nuclear button? Johnson successfully compressed a series of worries about Goldwater’s extremism into unacceptable anxiety.

Somewhat less dramatically, but no less damaging, was then-Vice President George H. W. Bush’s campaign against Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis in the race to succeed Ronald Reagan in 1988. The picture of Dukakis uneasily at the helm of a tank with his oversized helmet strapped on for dear life settled the commander-in-chief issue pretty decisively.

In other elections, issues of war and peace have been at the center of the debate. The clouds of Vietnam swirled around the elections of both 1968 and 1972, to the advantage of Richard Nixon. In the first instance, the country was roiled with divisions and bitterness over war and race; Nixon offered peace and order. Four years later, the promise from Secretary of State Henry Kissinger that "peace is at hand" reinforced the doubts many Americans had on the eve of the election about the anti-war candidate, George McGovern. And disaffection with the war in Iraq certainly played a significant part in Barack Obama’s election in 2008.

Finally, there have been catastrophic events and crises that have swept over presidential elections — and changed their outcomes. President Jimmy Carter was in trouble before the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979, but holed up in the White House during the presidential campaign, burdened with a failed rescue effort, and embarrassed by the Iranians — who waited until just minutes after Reagan was inaugurated to release the hostages — his fate was sealed. And certainly, the sense of national purpose that carried forward from 9/11 and the early days of the Iraq War were important factors in President George W. Bush’s re-election in 2004.

So before we discount the impact of foreign policy in 2012, we need to open the historic aperture. No doubt the economy will be front and center. But the world has a way of intruding. President Obama starts here with a decided advantage. Polls show he has nearly a 20 point lead over Romney on handling international affairs. He has established himself as a strong commander-in-chief with successes against our most immediate threats — Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda — as well as robust decisions on Afghanistan and Libya, improved American standing in the world, rebalanced relationships in Asia, and a strong international coalition against the Iranian nuclear program. He has also assembled a world class team — Clinton, Gates, Panetta, Petraeus — who have worked well together.  

Moreover, history tells us that world events over the next five months could shape the currents of the campaign in significant ways.

  • Will Europe continue to paddle along with its head just above water, or will the eurozone capsize?
  • Will international pressure on Iran continue to tighten, or will Israel lose patience and attack?
  • Will Syria descend into full-scale civil war that spills over its borders and engulfs the region?
  • Will North Korea take some provocative action against South Korea that it cannot ignore?
  • Will a terrorist slip by, despite our robust defenses?

In these and other ways, Obama and Romney undoubtedly will be tested between now and the election. Will the American people maintain their confidence in President Obama’s ability to manage our global business? Or will Romney offer a serious and responsible alternative?

Undoubtedly, the campaign will be about jobs, jobs, jobs. But don’t throw away your world atlas too quickly.

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