I’ve always been skeptical when presidential candidates claim they will create jobs, grow the economy, and cure our social problems. While it is hard to deny that deregulation under Bush/Cheney set the stage for the 2008 financial crisis, it is less clear that our bounce back to under 5% unemployment would have been different under Romney or McCain. How much effect does a president, even combined with congress, have in moving the needle in our massive economy? Republicans and democrats blame each other for the bad and credit themselves for the good.
This is not to say I don’t have my preferences. Trickle-down economics has failed (ask Alan Greenspan, if you don’t believe me) and the state of health care is still questionable, at best. Growth isn’t where I wish it was for our recovering economy, and income inequality statistics are frightening.
In most election years, I would carefully study the proposals of those seeking my vote and try to decide who would make our domestic policy more sustainable, more fair, more successful. But in the back of my head, I feel like that impact is 10% at best. Less if they don’t get along with congress.
This year, though, something has changed. We are in an election unlike anything in my lifetime, and as a result I’ve learned something very important about myself. Turns out I’m a foreign policy voter.
Let’s back up.
A history professor of mine loved the George Wallace quote, “There’s not a dime’s worth of difference between the Democrat and Republican parties.” Like me, this teacher was skeptical of the bold claims both parties had about the economy and social change. He thought European political parties were far more diverse and interesting. But the U.S. President, he felt, had real power when it came to foreign policy. “Their legacy,” he would say, “is not the state of the country, but the state of the world.” He introduced me to the concept of the presidential “doctrine,” the viewpoint and objectives by which a president, and later history, defines their foreign policy.
But in the broad sense, I’ve never been too impressed. After all, isn’t most foreign policy non-partisan? I often wonder if someone else had won an election if they would have made the large-scale decisions differently. Would Mondale demand the Berlin Wall be torn down? Maybe. Would Bob Dole have gone into Somalia? Possibly. Would Al Gore have invaded Afghanistan after 9/11? Almost certainly. Would McCain have bailed out the banks? I think he would have.
In spite of the perception that Republicans are more hawkish and Democrats are more dovish, they both tend to view our treaties and global stability through roughly the same lens. Either party’s president would protect the post-WWII global order. It almost goes without saying. Protect NATO allies. Resist Russian aggression. Defend Israel. Contain North Korea. Enforce the Geneva Conventions. These are almost so obvious and persistent through both parties that they are barely worth a mention in a presidential race. It is simply what we do.
But something shook loose after 9/11. Gitmo and Abu Ghraib. The NSA and the Patriot Act. Torture memos. Something shifted, and we were suddenly arguing about what torture meant. For me, the pattern changed. I do not believe Al Gore would have invaded Iraq. My “dime’s worth of difference” theory was under challenge.
Obama’s vote not to invade Iraq, at the time, moved the needle in an electorate alarmed by the shift. After his inauguration, he communicated his mantra throughout his administration: “Don’t do stupid stuff.” And for many, for a while, this was a refreshing change.
But eventually, even those who were generally supportive of Obama were frustrated that this was the extent of his vision. Jon Stewart lamented in 2010 that “he ran as a visionary, and he’s led as a functionary.” History will judge if this was fair. In his second term, Obama opened relations with Cuba and negotiated a nuclear deal with Iran – breaking decades of silence on both fronts. Without a crystal ball, there’s no way to know how those choices will work out, but one way or another, they will define his legacy.
Such movements were not enough for Hillary Clinton’s taste. In 2014, frustrated with Obama’s unwillingness to intervene in Syria, she said, “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle,” which was a mic drop that briefly rocked the politicos to their core. She quickly withdrew the comment, and she and her former boss did lunch to demonstrate they were pals. But it remains an incredible insight into the mind of someone whose comments are rarely unguarded.
But even all of that noise might be lost in the weeds of history. After all, Bush, Obama, and Clinton all share the same basic core rules about America’s place in the world. Protect NATO allies. Resist Russian aggression. Etc, etc.
Which brings us to this very interesting moment in history. For the first time in my lifetime, a major political party has nominated someone who has no loyalty to those obligations. In a foreign policy interview with the New York Times published last week, Trump doubled down on his rejection of what is usually taken for granted. He suggested that NATO allies who didn’t pay their bills wouldn’t get our protection, leaving them open to Russian invasion. He suggested that having troops stationed in South Korea was a bad idea, and that Japan shouldn’t depend on the U.S. for protection. That Putin (who has invaded two sovereign nations in the last decade) would “get along” well with him, following an earlier comment that he was a “strong” leader. That because of our own social issues, we shouldn’t judge or get involved with what’s going on in other countries (Turkey’s recent jailing of 50,000 people was the specific example.)
For many who follow foreign policy, it is a frightening interview, with each answer more unbelievable than the last. It serves as a clear example for many Republicans on why they’re planning to hold their nose and cross the aisle this election. With an actual difference between the candidates, a lot of people are surprised to find they are foreign policy voters. Clinton was quick to respond to the interview, with, “Ronald Reagan would be ashamed. Harry Truman would be ashamed. Republicans, Democrats and Independents who help build NATO into the most successful military alliance in history would all come to the same conclusion: Donald Trump is temperamentally unfit and fundamentally ill-prepared to be our commander in chief.”
At the end of the day, this might be her best argument. “Hate me if you like, but I won’t break the world.”
It is worth it, I think, to put Trump against those big historical decisions in my lifetime. Would he measure up? Trump intervene in Somalia? How does that help the U.S.? Geneva Convention? Heck no, kill terrorists’ wives and children. Trump tear down the Berlin wall? Only if Mexico paid for it.
I have no context for a world with such a person in the oval office. I don’t think anyone does. He’s off the grid. In some ways that’s his appeal, but if he’s suggesting we abandon our obligations, what is going to fill the void? What is the new world order, under Trump?
If my professor were still with us, I’d give him a call and ask him if he still thought there was only a dime’s worth of difference between the parties.
In his way, he’d probably smile at my panic and admit, “Maybe a quarter.”