Reprinted from the Washington Post, February 15, 2000

As long as we're throwing conventional political wisdom overboard this year, how's this for a radical thought: Foreign policy is playing a big role in the 2000 Republican primary contest. Bigger than education. Bigger than campaign finance reform. Bigger than abortion. As big as Social Security.

No, Republican voters are not peppering the candidates with questions about Iraq or Taiwan. They're not asking when or how the next president plans to deploy a national missile defense system. They don't seem to care who is running Russia these days. But they are doing something that is more important: They are trying to measure the candidates' overall fitness for world leadership.

In exit polls after the New Hampshire Republican primary, 13 percent of voters declared "world affairs" the most important issue in the campaign. If that doesn't sound like much, then consider this: "Social Security/Medicare," the monster domestic issues, were also cited by 13 percent. A mere 6 percent cited "education"; another six cited "abortion." Only "moral values" and "taxes" came in ahead of "world affairs," and the latter just barely.

Public interest in foreign policy is one big reason John McCain is giving George W. Bush a run for his money. McCain has convinced many Republican voters that he will be a stronger world leader. Just as important, he has convinced them that it matters. In fact, McCain's very presence in the campaign is making Republican voters think harder about their prospective commander in chief this year.

The polls bear this out, too. In New Hampshire those who thought foreign policy was the most important issue in the campaign voted overwhelmingly for McCain, more than those who cited moral values or Social Security as the top issues. Among those who believed that the "most important quality in deciding whom to support" was whether or not the candidate would be a "strong, decisive leader," McCain beat Bush by 24 percent. Recent polls of South Carolina voters tell the same story. According to one LA Times survey, when asked who would "do the best job of handling foreign policy," voters pick McCain over Bush by a margin of 49 to 33.

It's not so much what McCain says about foreign policy that is distinguishing him from Bush in the public mind. Both candidates talk about preserving and extending America's global preeminence. Both reject the non-interventionist stance of the Republican Congress. If anything, Bush's foreign policy speeches are more coherent than McCain's.

The difference is biography. McCain's wartime heroism gives his call for American strength and idealism a power and a resonance that Bush can't match. When Bush extols American moral leadership, it's good rhetoric. When McCain declares that America is "the greatest force for good in the world," it is against the background of having nearly died in service of that noble sentiment.

Even the irony of having fought in a war of good intentions and miserable results, a war that many Americans of Bill Clinton's generation protested as immoral, works to McCain's advantage. Something in his campaign recalls the sense of renewed national purpose in world affairs that characterized Ronald Reagan's 1980 campaign. When Reagan called Vietnam a "noble cause," he scandalized many traditional liberals but won over many other Americans, including Democrats, who were tired of national self-flagellation. McCain may be striking the same chord. He lends encouragement to those who want to think well of their nation's global mission. That he paid such a high personal price for carrying it out not only enhances his own stature but also gives the mission itself fresh appeal.

It isn't all biography, though. McCain made foreign policy an issue in this campaign, and so, in a negative way, has Bush. McCain first thrust himself into the national consciousness not on the issue of campaign finance reform but on the issue of Kosovo. The Kosovo debate last spring not only launched McCain's candidacy but established its insurgent character. While the Republican Congress and conservative commentators denounced the intervention and tried to make Kosovo "Bill Clinton's war," McCain appeared on every TV program in America calling for a more vigorous prosecution of the conflict, including the use of ground troops. He not only bucked his own party leadership; he was far ahead of public opinion.

Today he's reaping the reward. Even if voters aren't thinking about Kosovo, McCain's stand during the war helped establish his reputation as a "strong, decisive leader." Bush supported the war in Kosovo, too. But his support was hedged, careful and late.

Then there is the little matter of Bush's flubbing of the pop foreign policy quiz on the leaders of Pakistan, Chechnya and other hot spots, his mixing up of Slovenia and Slovakia and calling Greeks "Grecians." At the time, conventional wisdom held that voters wouldn't care. Now it looks as if these foreign policy gaffes set up an important contrast in the struggle between Bush and McCain. In a year when McCain was succeeding in convincing voters that fitness for world leadership was a key quality in a presidential candidate, the popular perception that Bush might be inadequately prepared was deadly.

Voters are defying truisms about the political salience of foreign policy, just as they are ignoring truisms about taxes. Even with no Soviet Union to worry about, they want to know how a candidate would fare as commander in chief.

If so, they deserve more information to make their choice. There's more to how a candidate would actually perform in the White House than biography. The voters need a better sense of how Bush and McCain would handle the foreign policy challenges that are likely to arise in the next four years. Every word uttered by Bush and McCain on the subject of abortion has been parsed, researched and reported in endless column inches in our major newspapers. Their positions on foreign policy warrant some scrutiny, too. What exactly does Bush mean when he says he would "take out" Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction? How does McCain propose to maintain America's global "preeminence" without spending an additional dime on defense? Would either candidate send U.S. troops to defend Montenegro from an attack by Slobodan Milosevic? Would they send troops to Colombia if that was necessary to prevent the victory of narco-guerrillas? These are not trivial questions: For the next president, they will be matters of war and peace. Let's hope that in tonight's Republican debate in South Carolina, moderator Larry King will shine a spotlight on "world affairs." For a good chunk of the electorate this year, it's the most important issue.