For evidence that foreign affairs are swiftly emerging as a central factor in the nascent 2016 presidential race, look no further than Dallas, deep in the heart of Texas and 7,000 miles away from the brutal conflict in Gaza.
There, on Wednesday, Texas Gov. Rick Perry gave a speech reaffirming his solidarity with the people of Israel. While it might feel a little like the mayor of Sacramento standing up to Vladimir Putin, the move said much about the wide-open Republican field.
With the world aflame in Gaza, Ukraine, Syria, and elsewhere, potential 2016 candidates are sharpening their foreign policy and national security credentials, seeking outside counsel, and raising their profiles. Perry is just one example. In recent months, others such as Sens. Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio have been proving the adage that politicians should never let a crisis go to waste.
The Obama administration has given them a target in plain sight. And while it's relatively easy to lob brickbats from the cheap seats, saying that the president should be, in effect, doing more everywhere, there's another reason why possible contenders have to be working on their foreign policy game now, not later: the prospect of a Hillary Clinton candidacy.
Clinton, the former secretary of State, could place Democrats in an unfamiliar position in the next presidential race, giving them the edge in foreign policy and national security. You would have to go back to Al Gore's race against George W. Bush in 2000 to find the last time that happened—and Gore was never the nation's leading diplomat.
"It's assumed she is a heavyweight on foreign policy," said Vin Weber, the former Republican congressman from Minnesota and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. "You can't look like you're completely outclassed."
Conversely, should Clinton not run and Democrats embrace someone such as Elizabeth Warren, who seems almost exclusively focused on domestic economic issues, that edge would vanish and some Republican—be it Perry, Rubio, or someone else—will be in a position to capitalize. That means they have to lay the groundwork now.
Clinton presents a formidable challenge. She is widely viewed, rightly or wrongly, as more hawkish than Obama, more willing to use American military power. And she has been subtly distancing herself from the president's approach toward hotbeds like Syria and Russia. Her comments in a weekend interview on CNN were seen by some as a critique of the administration. The United States, Clinton said, needs to "go back out and sell ourselves" on the world stage. "What do we stand for and how do we intend to lead and manage?" she asked, adding, "I don't think we've done a very good job of that."
It essentially means that Clinton would, should she run, be occupying the space that might normally be held by a traditional national security Republican, someone like John McCain or Mitt Romney. The New York Times even wondered aloud whether Clinton could be considered a neoconservative in the mold of, wait for it, Paul Wolfowitz. That doesn't mean Clinton would be firewalled from Republican attacks. As Weber says, she can't entirely separate herself from Obama. For one thing, she'll have to defend her move at State to "reset" relations with Putin and Russia—although now she says she was "skeptical" of Putin all along.
In terms of outreach to the foreign policy establishment, Clinton, too, is light-years ahead of her potential rivals. At the State Department, she formed a bipartisan outside advisory group, which included neoconservative scholar Robert Kagan; John Negroponte, who served as an adviser to President Reagan and national intelligence director under George W. Bush; Stephen Krasner, a former aide to Condoleezza Rice at State; and Stephen Hadley, who served as Bush's national security adviser.
Clinton's centrist street cred could force some contenders to veer more sharply to the right to define themselves. There are signs that's already happening. In an interview this week with the Daily Beast, Cruz said he would consider scuttling any nuclear-arms deal struck by the Obama administration with Iran if he considered it a threat to national security. Last month, Rubio likened Sunni insurgents in Iraq and Syria to al-Qaida and criticized Obama for publicly ruling out sending U.S. ground troops to the region. And then there's very real political risk that conservatives such as Cruz could end up alienating mainstream voters with a relentless focus on foreign policy side issues, namely Benghazi.
But no one's carved out a niche like Paul, who has found himself under repeated attack by the GOP national security establishment. Perry led the charge with a withering op-ed in The Washington Post earlier this month, in which he said the Kentucky libertarian wants to create a "giant moat" around America "where superpowers can retire from the world."
Paul's camp denies the senator's foreign policy should be viewed as "isolationist," as Perry charges. Lorne Craner, a foreign policy adviser to Paul, told National Journal that Paul should be considered a "realist" along the lines of former Republican foreign policy titans like James A. Baker III, Casper Weinberger, and George Schultz. "He has a very high bar for military intervention," said Craner, who worked at the State Department under Colin Powell. "That is important. I think we've learned last 10 years—the last 40 years really—to think carefully before you get into a war."
Ostensibly referring to Perry and some other of Paul's critics, Craner added: "Republicans used to have a reputation as the foreign-policy grownups. That's not the way most voters would describe it at this point."
Paul's recruitment of Craner is part of his extended outreach to Washington's foreign policy community. He's also met with Elliott Abrams, the former Middle East policy expert in the Bush administration, among others. While praising Paul's intellect, Abrams said, "I think he wants to see a very diminished American role.... I think his view is quite distinct."
For his part, Cruz tapped Victoria Coates, a former aide to Donald Rumsfeld, as his top national security adviser after she did a turn advising Perry during the 2012 campaign. Rubio brought aboard Jamie Fly, a member of the National Security Council during the Bush administration and the former executive director of the Foreign Policy Initiative, a neoconservative advocacy group, as his national security adviser. According to The Post, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has consulted with Richard Haass, the president of the Council of Foreign Relations.
Christie illustrates the hazard of trying to master foreign relations on the fly. In March, he had to apologize to GOP mega-donor Sheldon Adelson after referring in a speech to Palestinian regions in Israel as "occupied territories." Weber says that while foreign policy is rarely the primary concern of voters, a "gaffe can be fatal. Every presidential candidate has to make sure they look knowledgeable on America's role in the world."
It's a concern that no doubt was in the forefront of Perry's mind as he delivered his remarks on Israel on Wednesday from the relative safety of Dallas. Like many of his potential rivals, the governor is learning to swim in water that's getting deeper by the day.
This article appears in the July 31, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.