Remember how the two major political parties used to handle foreign-policy debates during election season? Republicans from Dwight D. Eisenhower to John McCain would try to project an air of solid foreign-policy competence, while Democrats from George McGovern to Michael Dukakis to John Kerry were successfully lambasted for being soft on security.
Not this year. Whatever other surprises the presidential campaign may bring, 2016 has already flipped the foreign-policy narrative. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is presenting herself as the cool hand and Donald Trump is the inexperienced wild card. It’s a departure from the past that’s heightened even further by Trump’s disdain for U.S. alliances, globalization, and international institutions — positions that in turn diverge sharply from traditional Republican foreign policy stances.
On Tuesday night at the Democratic convention, Clinton’s strength on national security issues, from her action in the wake of 9/11 to her tenure as secretary of state, was a centerpiece buttressed by testimonials from New York City police detectives and retired former generals, and speeches from the likes of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to Senator Amy Klobuchar. (Not to mention the vigorous support from the podium of a former commander in chief also named Clinton.)
Meanwhile, the next day Trump underscored his disregard for traditional norms of foreign policy with an astonishing (even for Trump, which is to say wildly, head-spinningly reckless), call for a foreign intelligence service to continue spying on the United States in order to directly benefit his political campaign. This is the kind of thing that would have produced congressional investigations and instant disqualification for higher office in the past. But for Trump it was just another day on the stump. He once asserted that his base liked him so much he could shoot someone and get away with it. It seems increasingly that he is committed to testing the limits of this theory.
(Trump’s most recent outrage would have been bad enough — had he not also compounded it by suggesting that he didn’t particularly mind that Russia had taken over Crimea and thought we should lift sanctions against Russia. This is not only contrary to U.S. interests and policy, but Trump’s double-down on his flip on policy toward Ukraine in general that is deeply disturbing. It has been manifest in the Republican platform at the direct request of Trump operatives — despite the general lack of interest and attention the candidate paid to the platform otherwise. It would raise eyebrows for the substance, but taken in conjunction with Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort’s years of working for Ukraine strongman and Putin pal Viktor Yanukovych, it seems like a really overt and troubling example of putting a “for sale” sign on U.S. foreign policy — and selling out to some of the world’s most odious characters. Characters — the Putin clique — who also happen to include oligarchs who were key financiers for Trump projects.)
In May, the Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll showed Mrs. Clinton with a 27 percent advantage on handling foreign policy and as having a 10-point edge on being a good commander in chief. Those figures will no doubt shift amid the turbulence of the party conventions, and Trump may well retain an edge on the narrower issue of handling terrorism as incumbent parties are seen as having a special burden of responsibility in such cases, but the wider trajectory is already set.
This is a startling shift. As Noah Gordon noted in 2014 for the Atlantic, “For nearly all of the past 40 years, polls have consistently shown that Americans trust Republicans to handle security — and the related issues of foreign affairs and the military — better than Democrats.”
This was no accident, and — despite exceptions along the way — both parties have largely collaborated on creating and cementing this public perception. The Democrats — the party of Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Harry Truman, who waged world wars and commanded the largest war machine in U.S. history, even as many Republicans favored isolationism — shifted their tune during the 1960s.
After the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, the Democratic Party changed course on Vietnam and became associated with the antiwar movement — and, often, with a wider critique of the strategy of containing Soviet communism that undergirded the Cold War. George McGovern ran in 1972 with the slogan “Come Home, America.” Decades later, former antiwar activists like Bill Clinton and John Kerry were still becoming the party’s standard-bearers.
The Democrats’ glass jaw on foreign policy was compounded by the failed presidency of Jimmy Carter, who (despite helping forge a durable Egyptian-Israeli peace) watched the Soviet Union invade Afghanistan and lost the White House over the national humiliation of the Iran hostage crisis. Image blunders like Michael Dukakis, the Democrats’ 1988 nominee, bobbing awkwardly in a tank helped stamp foreign-policy bumbling into the party’s identity.
Bill Clinton struggled to shed this legacy in his 1992 campaign: President George H.W. Bush sneered of the Arkansas governor and his running mate, Sen. Al Gore, that that “my dog Millie knows more about foreign affairs than these two bozos.” (Clinton rightly reckoned that the election would hinge on the economy, not national security.)
Meanwhile, since Dwight Eisenhower, Republicans have worked to cultivate a reputation for foreign-policy competence and strength. It helped, of course, that Eisenhower was supreme allied commander in World War II. But many other GOP candidates had real foreign-policy track records — including former Vice Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush. Ronald Reagan was a model of hawkish eloquence. The Republicans also nominated several strikingly brave veterans: The elder Bush was a World War II torpedo-bomber pilot who was shot down by the Japanese in 1944 and later charmingly recounted thinking about “the separation of church and state” while waiting to be rescued, and John McCain suffered terribly as a prisoner in Vietnam. Meanwhile, some of the largest names in foreign policy — including major secretaries of state like Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, and James Baker, as well as the very model of the modern national security adviser, Gen. Brent Scowcroft — have also been Republicans. (The Democrats gave us Dean Rusk, Cyrus Vance, and Warren Christopher.)
This divergence has been about policy ideas as well as politics and personnel. For the last half-century, the Republican Party has made defense spending a priority, while the Democrats have often called for cuts — a fact that hasn’t helped the Democrats’ standing within the Pentagon.
Of course, Republicans have had their missteps, from the Iran-Contra affair to the catastrophic 2003 invasion of Iraq. But the pattern has been so well-established that it has become part of the Republican identity even when the party fielded candidates with essentially no foreign-policy experience, like George W. Bush (who could surround himself, for better or worse, with national security “brand names” like Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, and Donald Rumsfeld).
I hear constantly from international leaders worldwide that the Republicans are the proven, trusted custodians of U.S. foreign policy. Two weeks ago in Shanghai, I spoke to Chinese experts who said that they were hoping for a Trump victory because “Republicans are more experienced and sensible” and because they feared more human-rights critiques from Hillary Clinton. They were surprised to learn that virtually no senior Republican foreign-policy experts were backing the Trump campaign (absent a few divisive figures such as Messrs. Cheney and Rumsfeld) and that many, many more — including luminaries like Mr. Scowcroft, former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson — had already announced they would support Clinton.
That gives Clinton a rare opportunity to flip the narrative and argue that the Democratic Party is again, as it was in the first half of the last century, the party of national-security strength and competence. She could easily portray Trump, using his own words, as out of his depth — not to mention weak on Russia, soft on nuclear proliferation, addled on terrorism, and alienating to the allies we need to keep ourselves safe. When Clinton excoriated Trump in June as “unprepared,” “dangerously incoherent,” and “temperamentally unfit” to be commander in chief, the Republican foreign-policy establishment sat in silent agreement.
Clinton has foreign-policy vulnerabilities, of course, including the Benghazi terrorist attacks and lingering questions about whether her private email server might have compromised U.S. secrets. But these haven’t kept the vast majority of the country’s top national-security specialists from supporting her, including many serious Republicans. And Trump’s declaration that he would not honor our NATO treaty obligations (more support for his buddy Putin, who has returned the favor with his DNC hack and WikiLeaks “revelations”) were the elected president along with his isolationist impulses and Muslim-bashing will only drive more Republicans out of his embrace.
The foreign-policy role reversal has already taken place. Trump is, at best, the neophyte lacking chops or credible advisors; when he does roll out a senior figure like Gen. Mike Flynn, it is someone with fringe views. At best, he is a Putin patsy. But it may turn out to be much worse than that. But it may turn out to be much worse than that. He may not only be inexperienced, he may be fundamentally corrupt and pose a threat to national security unprecedented in any candidate of the modern era.
Clinton, on the other hand, is, as any objective observer must acknowledge, the experienced hand with the brand-name team. In the 2016 debate, the mantle of foreign-policy competence rests squarely on the shoulders of the Democratic nominee.
As far as Trump goes, he is currently well in the lead to become the acclimation pick to be the worst foreign-policy candidate in American history — and he should be a shoo-in to be the subject of a major congressional investigation into the dangers posed by his policies and foreign ties.