If you want a clear sense of why the Republican presidential candidates have been largely ignoring foreign policy, look no further than the most recent Gallup Poll asking Americans to identify their top concern. For nearly four years—from April 2004 to January 2008—a plurality of voters pointed to Iraq. In the late-October survey, however, just 1 percent of Americans said it was the country’s most important problem. Of those respondents, not a single one was a Republican.
When the GOP candidates take the stage in South Carolina on Saturday night for a National Journal/CBS News debate, they won’t simply be jostling for position. For the first time, leading contenders such as Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, and Herman Cain will have to outline their views on foreign policy, an issue area badly neglected thanks to an overwhelming focus on the economy. National security is usually a strong point for Republicans, whom voters generally trust more than Democrats on the issue. George W. Bush accused John Kerry of weakness on national security in 2004, and John McCain did the same to Barack Obama in 2008. In this cycle, by contrast, the Republicans vying for their party’s nomination have set that tactic aside in favor of a laser-like focus on Obama’s economic record.
There are four main reasons that Republicans have been ignoring foreign policy. First, polls show that voters hardly care about it. “Republicans realize this will be a referendum on Obama’s economy, and they’re speaking to that,” said Greg Mueller, the president of CRC Public Relations, which works with conservative candidates and advocacy groups. “It’s like in 1992, except that instead of saying, ‘It’s the economy, stupid,’ they’re saying, ‘It’s the Obama economy, stupid.’ ”
Second, national security hasn’t been a weak point for Obama in the way that it seemed to haunt Democratic nominees Kerry and Al Gore: An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll this week found that 52 percent of Americans approve of Obama’s handing of foreign policy, with a whopping 71 percent backing his decision to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of the year.
The other two reasons have to do with the GOP’s internal dynamics. For one thing, the leading candidates see eye to eye on most major foreign-policy issues: They all agree that Obama has damaged America’s relationship with Israel and played softball with Iran. For another, the field’s leaders have very little foreign-policy experience, and their opinions are still taking shape. With the exception of Romney, none has well-developed views or appears to have given the subject serious thought. Cain famously said in a recent interview that, as president, he wouldn’t devote much time to knowing the president of “Uzbeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan.”
When they have touched on the issue, the Republican candidates have often been vague. Perry has talked about sending U.S. troops into Mexico to fight drug cartels and using Predator drones to prevent undocumented immigrants from crossing the southwestern border into the United States; the Texas governor has also offered only hazy comments about how long American troops should remain in Afghanistan or what his administration would do about the rise of China. Last week, he went further than his GOP rivals, publicly endorsing a possible Israeli military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, although he didn’t address whether U.S. warplanes should take part in the assault or how he would prevent Iran from launching a counterattack against Israel, Saudi Arabia, and other American allies.
Cain—a former pizza-chain CEO whose campaign is based on a promise to use his business acumen to boost the economy and reform the tax code—recently said he would consider an Iranian attack on Israel to be equivalent to an attack on the U.S., but he declined to say whether he would endorse a preemptive strike on Iran. His comments on other issues suggest that he is still getting up to speed on foreign policy. Last month, he told CNN he would support trading all Guantanamo Bay detainees for a single captive American soldier. He also erroneously asserted that China was trying to develop nuclear weapons. (The Communist nation developed nukes in the 1960s.) In both cases, Cain later said he “misspoke.”
Romney is the only candidate with a detailed foreign policy. He used a speech at the Citadel last month to slam Obama’s handling of Israel, call for increased defense spending, and promise to build a missile-defense system capable of deterring Iran and North Korea. All three are common conservative positions. But in a clear sign of how little foreign policy appears to matter in the campaign, the speech didn’t give the former Massachusetts governor any kind of bump in the polls. In fact, it may even have hurt him: When Romney said he wanted to “bring our troops home [from Afghanistan] as soon as we possibly can,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., responded by likening Romney to President Carter.
Still, what candidates say this early in the election cycle typically bears little relation to the policies they pursue as president. In 1999, Bush gave his own national-security speech at the Citadel, promising to build a missile-defense system and avoid committing U.S. troops to “open-ended deployments and unclear military missions.” Nine years later, missile defense was a pipe dream, and American forces were bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan. In politics, as in so much else, actions speak louder than words.
This article appears in the November 12, 2011, edition of National Journal Magazine.