Clinton’s Trying to Use Foreign Policy to Beat Sanders

Here's why it could backfire.

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Heading into the home stretch of the unexpectedly close Iowa caucus, an anxious Hillary Clinton is increasingly wielding foreign policy and national security as a weapon against Bernie Sanders — an unexpected and high-risk approach that could backfire on the Democratic front-runner.

Early on in her campaign, Clinton kept her distance from a spate of global security crises that have beleaguered the second Obama administration. When polls first began tightening, Clinton and surrogates like her daughter, Chelsea, drilled down on domestic issues, accusing Sanders of being too close to the nation’s gun-makers and questioning his commitment to universal health care. Now, with Clinton leading narrowly in Iowa but Sanders leading by large margins in New Hampshire, she is taking a different tack, hammering him for his alleged naiveté on Iran, Russia, and other hot-button issues. Clinton calls it the “let’s get real” period.

The new strategy has been on display since shortly after President Barack Obama’s final State of the Union on Jan. 12, when a series of Clinton campaign “factchecks” asserted that Sanders “has a troubling history of questioning President Obama and his achievements” and “has largely avoided discussing foreign policy” instead offering “mixed messages and misguided ideas.” Clinton ramped up her attacks after Sanders said in the Jan. 17 Democratic debate, “I think what we’ve got to do is move as aggressively as we can to normalize relations with Iran.” Although his fuller comments were more nuanced — he continued, “Can I tell you that we should open an embassy in Tehran tomorrow? No, I don’t think we should” — the Clinton campaign wasted little time in trying to use it as evidence that its rival was unfit to be commander in chief. In a Jan. 19 letter, 10 former diplomats and senior national security officials who back Clinton sharply attacked Sanders’s comments about Iran. “His call for more Iranian troops in Syria is dangerous and misguided and the opposite of what is needed,” they wrote. “Supporting Iranian soldiers on Israel‘s doorstep is a grave mistake.”

On Jan. 21, Brian Fallon, Clinton’s national press secretary, called the senator a “caricature” of the dovish Democrat that hawkish Republicans love to use as a punching bag.

For his part, Sanders rebuffs the attacks on his record as disingenuous and insists that in “almost every speech we give, we talk about foreign policy.” But he has yet to give a major address on the issue, and his response largely consists of invoking Clinton’s vote for the Iraq War to undermine her far more extensive résumé and question her judgment.

In his decades in Congress, Sanders has made his name railing against income inequality and big banks, though he did preside over reforms to the Department of Veterans Affairs in 2014 in the wake of the waitlist scandal as chairman of the Senate VA Committee. His broader foreign-policy approach is anti-interventionist, wary of the at times destabilizing impact of using U.S. military force. Yet he is obviously discomfited when pressed on the issue, as captured on prime time in an earlier debate when he balked on a question about Russian President Vladimir Putin. He opposes the large-scale deployment of U.S. ground troops in Iraq and Syria — but he also authorized the boots on the ground there today, by voting for the 2001 authorization for the use of military force that the Obama administration says serves as the legal foundation for the war against the Islamic State and broader counterterrorism operations across the globe.

On the Clinton campaign’s attacks on his national security record, Sanders told Foreign Policy Wednesday: “This is how I respond to it: The major foreign-policy issue in the modern history of this country was the war in Iraq. I voted against the war in Iraq; she voted for the war in Iraq.” Underscoring the stakes, he was rushing through the Capitol to catch a plane back to Iowa. “That may tell people in Iowa and around this country about judgment. So I’m not going to apologize to anybody about my judgment on foreign policy.”

But the Clinton campaign’s midnight-hour gambit to make the Democratic primary a national security contest carries its own risks. In an election where “establishment” has become a dirty word, emphasizing Clinton’s experience highlights a staid, wonkish style out of touch with the frenetic mood captured in the bumper-sticker movement of “Feel the Bern.” It also exposes vulnerabilities in that very record she touts, disrupting the careful balance Clinton has struck between owning Obama’s foreign-policy successes, like his landmark nuclear accord with Iran, while distancing herself from the handling of Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and Libya, where she backed more hawkish policies that have failed to bring stability to any of the countries.

Clinton also faces the stark reality that even after attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, national security simply doesn’t capture the imagination and passion of Democratic primary voters the way it does for Republicans. A Pew Research Center study earlier this month found that terrorism, at 87 percent, was the top concern of GOP voters. Among Democrats, it ranked third, at 73 percent, behind education and the economy, at 76 percent and 74 percent, respectively.

Dick Durbin, the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat and an early supporter of Obama in 2008, backs Clinton but has suggested in recent days that she could lose both Iowa and New Hampshire. “It’s possible,” he told FP Wednesday.

In a sense, both candidates are pulling from the 2008 Democratic primary playbook.

Today’s tightening polls in Iowa, the war in Iraq, and widespread disapproval of the administration’s handling of foreign policy echo the runup to Clinton’s stunning loss to then-Sen. Barack Obama in that year’s caucus. But so does her current campaign’s strategy; at the time, she called Obama “irresponsible and frankly naive” for his willingness to meet with the likes of North Korea, Iran, and Cuba, without preconditions. The day after Obama announced, he flew to Iowa and began to bludgeon Clinton with her Iraq vote. “Even at the time, it was possible to make judgments that this would not work out well,” he said.

Clinton’s aides from that campaign have since acknowledged they gravely underestimated how important Iraq was to Democratic caucus-goers and that it was a mistake to refuse to say her vote for the war was wrong. They stood by the Iraq decision so Clinton would be able to look tough in a general election, but the approach helped Obama transform her national security strength into a vulnerability — and wrest the nomination from her hands.

Clinton’s current campaign has pushed back against the suggestion it could be repeating its mistake of underestimating the progressive appeal of a candidate less experienced on national security. Secretary Clinton has been a partner to President Obama in pursuing diplomacy backed by pressure to produce an outcome that is in America’s interests and in the world’s interest,” senior policy advisor Jake Sullivan said on a recent press call, arguing Obama ultimately adopted Clinton’s approach, rather than the other way around. “This is not 2008. This is 2016.”

Today, American voters are as anxious about terrorism and national security — and the government’s ability to protect them from attacks — as they have been since 9/11. Around 60 percent think that it is in the country’s interest to take military action against the Islamic State, and majorities of both parties say the military response to the militant group hasn’t been aggressive enough. This climate would seem to favor a more hawkish approach from the candidate with the most national security experience.

According to a nationwide poll taken days after the November Paris attacks, Clinton is the most trusted candidate to handle terrorism threats. She stacked up against Republican front-runner Donald Trump 50 to 42 percent. And according to a poll released the day before the Paris attacks, 53 percent of Democratic primary voters were “very confident” in Clinton’s ability to “handle an international crisis,” compared to just 16 percent for Sanders.

But there’s the paradox of the 2016 Democratic primary — and the risks inherent in Clinton’s attempt to turn it into a referendum on national security: Voters may trust Clinton to handle a crisis, but that doesn’t mean they’ll vote for her on Monday in Iowa, or the next week in New Hampshire, or beyond.

Although Sanders’s path to the nomination appears to dead-end past Iowa and New Hampshire, beyond the ground game or the poll numbers, the mood of the race, and thus the momentum, is against Clinton. Broadly, anti-establishment angst and fear-mongering have proved more potent political tools than nuanced policy prescriptions. Sanders, for his long career in Washington, has managed to leverage his underdog status to tap into this feeling on the Democratic side, mobilizing younger voters and positioning himself as the unabashed leader of a new political movement. Despite traditionally low voter turnout, this dynamic is very much at play on both sides in Iowa and New Hampshire, key states for a campaign’s momentum but ones that, as Durbin put it, “like to be contrarian.”

Clinton’s campaign has subtly and steadily built up its attack on Sanders’s electability, looking to portray the wild-haired, self-described socialist as a radical with unrealistic ideas. And the strategy seems to be working; in the past week, Clinton endorsements from the Des Moines Register and Concord Monitor emphasized: “The presidency is not an entry-level position,” while the Washington Post wrote an editorial (originally) entitled, “Mr. Sanders Is Not a Brave Truth-Teller”: “He is a politician selling his own brand of fiction to a slice of the country that eagerly wants to buy it.”

Sanders hit back, “Check out where all the geniuses on the editorial page were with regard to the invasion of Iraq.… The Washington Post may think I’m radical, but I’m not.” He’s got a point; a majority of Democratic primary voters have positive views of socialism — including self-proclaimed Clintonistas. And even the Clinton campaign is well aware that hitting foreign policy too hard could be a double-edged sword, by drawing attention to the former secretary of state’s own vulnerabilities and playing into negative perceptions of Clinton as ruthless and calculating. In recent days, it has dropped direct attacks on Sanders from her stump speeches and is using the Washington Post editorial to speak for it in New Hampshire instead.

Clinton has never faced serious questions about her competence; rather, her vulnerabilities are tied to impressions of being untrustworthy, inevitable, and unrelatable. Clinton is the establishment. She, like Obama, has struggled with coming off as too wonky or professorial, but she is not the lofty orator the “Hope and Change” president is. And it remains unclear what evidence there is that primary voters in Iowa and New Hampshire are basing their final decision on the candidates’ capabilities to handle all aspects of the job, and namely national security. On the Jan. 21 press call, Clinton press secretary Fallon dodged the question of the basis for the strategy shift against Sanders.

The campaign later pointed to two examples out of Iowa and New Hampshire to anecdotally demonstrate foreign policy is at the forefront of Democratic-leaning voters’ minds.

At a sunny stop in Iowa in early November, Clinton’s campaign was taken aback when a Wisconsin man stood up and asked about landmines in Laos. But with no discernible surprise or pause, the former secretary of state dove into a five-minute response, concluding that the United States should be “part of the solution, not a continuing part of the problem.”

Last month at a New Hampshire town hall meeting, a fidgety young woman asked Clinton, since she was “going to be our commander in chief,” “What is on your plan for everything that’s happening now in the Middle East with ISIS and Syria, and everything like that?” She rattled off a (literally) thousand-word answer, detailing a three-part plan that included de-escalating tensions within Iraq, countering Islamic State propaganda online, stopping anti-Muslim discrimination, and disrupting terrorist networks from North Africa to Southeast Asia. “When you vote for someone for president, you’re also voting for a commander in chief,” she said. “So that’s a very important question.”

But so is: Will it work?

Last week, the single most important Democrat gave a tacit endorsement of Clinton but seemed cynical as to whether voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, and the primaries would cast their vote based on credentials for commander in chief.

“[S]he’s extraordinarily experienced — and, you know, wicked smart and knows every policy inside and out,” Obama told Politico. “Sometimes [that] could make her more cautious, and her campaign more prose than poetry.”

But he continued, “Bernie came in with the luxury of being a complete long shot and just letting loose,” he said. “I think Hillary came in with the both privilege — and burden — of being perceived as the front-runner.… You’re always looking at the bright, shiny object that people haven’t seen before — that’s a disadvantage to her.”

Photo credit: TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images

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