Democrats Are Ceding Foreign Policy Too Early in the 2016 Election

Hillary Clinton reacts to applause from the crowd before speaking during the sixth annual Women in the World Summit, Thursday
Hillary Clinton reacts to applause from the crowd before speaking during the sixth annual Women in the World Summit, Thursday, April 23, 2015, in New York. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

There's a decent chance the 2016 presidential election will be about national security.

If that's the case, recent spin by Democratic pundits may undercut former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's campaign before it has much of a chance to establish itself.

"I think foreign policy is a Republican base issue, which is why you see Republicans coming out of the gate talking about it," Democratic strategist Stephanie Cutter said on NBC's Meet the Press on June 14. Challenged on that, she said, "It's a Republican establishment issue, and it always has been."

Tell that to President Obama, Vice President Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry, former Maine Democratic Sen. George Mitchell, the Democratic members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, all the voters who opposed the Iraq war, all the veterans who support Democrats, the organization known as, etc.

From the rise of ISIS, to Russian President Vladimir Putin's chest-thumping, to Israel's struggles with the Palestinians, to the nuclear negotiations with Iran, to cybersecurity, trade, China's rise and tensions with North Korea, foreign policy has become all-consuming for the executive branch and will take up a huge chunk of the 45th president's time and energy.

But one of the most prominent Democratic strategists in the country is ready to cede foreign policy to the Republicans about nine months before each party knows who its nominees will be. And this idea -- that foreign policy and national security are topics that simply fire up the Republican base -- is a theory I've heard repeated by multiple Democratic operatives in the past week, meaning it's a line of spin some of the party is beginning to adopt.

The strategy behind that spin is as follows: Hillary Clinton spent four years running the State Department, so foreign policy should be among her greatest strengths. In politics smart, aggressive campaigns drive hard at their opponents' biggest strengths to try to turn them into weaknesses. Given that Clinton presided over the nation's foreign policy during the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and as other global hots spots grew more dangerous, Republicans could cast her tenure as a failure with relative ease and therefore find success in making it a weakness for her.

On the flip side, she has four years' worth of learning and management experiences in this arena that no other candidate in the race has. Love her or hate her, that's a valuable credential. She's a pretty smart woman, so she probably understands that.

And yet, everyone with a pulse noticed she barely touched on global issues during her campaign launch on June 13 on Roosevelt Island and didn't speak much about her experiences as secretary of state. The explanation I've heard is that voters know her well in that role and now she's trying to re-introduce herself in a broader way, get an economic message rolling and appease the Democratic base with her populist approach.

Politically that could be reasonable, but she should have given a little time to this resume item that no one else has and that should set her apart from the pack. Since she didn't, the narrative that foreign policy may be a weakness for her could be beginning to crystallize.

And since she didn't, this one line was the most interesting part of the entire speech: "I believe the future holds far more opportunities than threats if we exercise creative and confident leadership that enables us to shape global events rather than be shaped by them."

Parsing that, there may be a bit of a dig at her old boss, the president, in the word "confident." His critics say he's conflicted about just how engaged the United States should be in international flare-ups. Her take on that will be interesting.

As an American and as a journalist, I'm eager to hear exactly what creative leadership means. She had a fair amount of autonomy in Foggy Bottom, but she still had to answer to President Obama. How will her approach be different?

From the statement she made, it sounds as though she's planning to address all that in due time, and she should be afforded that chance. Contextually, Cutter and other Democrats are trying to say those issues may be more important to Republican voters than Democratic voters, and so Republican candidates are trying hard to drive that wedge. But that doesn't change what independent voters heard, and that is a problem.

Several months ago, I asked Jeb Bush's chief strategist, David Kochel, if he thought national security would be the driving issue in the election, and his response was that it will factor more prominently into this election than it has in the last several.

One month ago, pollsters on both sides of the aisle told me national security could be a driver in the election, but only if some major attack happens between now and then. They all said that's plausible, and it is.

In recent weeks Republican campaigns have taken note of what Democrats are pushing and are sensing a potential advantage in trying to get the upper hand on foreign policy.

A recent Gallup poll showed 49 percent of Americans are concerned that a member of their family could become a victim of terrorism, which is up nine percentage points in two years and is the highest it's been since 9/11. That's not a number to brush aside.

Americans I've spoken to all across the political spectrum are terrified about ISIS and future attacks on American soil. Clinton and the Democrats supporting her most certainly will have something to say about it. Voters deserve a full-fledged debate about this scary new frontier, and Democratic pundits ought to let us hear it.