I’ve spent most of my time the past two weeks discharging my administrative responsibilities rather than following the news. With the stack of papers piled in my inbox now looking to be just daunting rather than terrifying, I decided to catch up on the news. So far most of what I have read has been unsurprising. The Syrian government agreed to a cease-fire and then broke it. North Korea promised not to launch a long-range missile and then did just that. Iran offered to talk about a nuclear deal while continuing to intimidate its neighbors. People behaved badly when they went abroad or visited Las Vegas. All are essentially dog-bites-man stories.
The one surprise I did come across was last week’s Washington Post/ABC News poll. Typically, Democratic candidates run behind their Republican rivals when it comes to foreign policy. The public’s presumption since the days of Vietnam has been that Republicans are “tougher” and hence better on foreign policy. But as the 2012 campaign swings into full gear, the Post/ABC poll found that voters give President Obama the edge over Governor Romney on foreign policy, and the margin is substantial–53 to 36 percent. That’s man-bites-dog stuff.
Three obligatory caveats. First, barring a major international crisis, the economy and jobs will drive voting decisions in 2012. Foreign policy will play second fiddle, and if so, who the public thinks would handle it better might not matter a whit. Second, national polls can be misleading because presidential elections aren’t national elections as much as they are (thanks to the Electoral College) fifty simultaneous state elections. We already know who will win in forty of those states. What will determine who takes the oath of office next January 20 is who voters favor in the ten states or so that are up for grabs. And those voters may not be representative of the entire country. Third, most Americans haven’t even begun to evaluate Obama versus Romney let alone decide whose foreign policy they like better. That won’t happen until late summer, if at all. So treat any polls you see for the next several months with the proverbial grain of salt.
That said, Romney’s task between now and November is to nullify Obama’s advantage on foreign policy. He will do that in the time-honored “missile gap” and “Butchers of Beijing” mode—by running to the president’s right. He will hit Obama for being too weak, too willing to appease, and too quick to apologize for America. The countries that will lead Romney’s parade of failures will be Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan, China, and Russia.
Beating up Obama on Afghanistan and Russia won’t help Romney much. Obama is closer than Romney is to the public’s position on Afghanistan, which essentially is, let’s get out. Russia simply doesn’t command the public’s attention or interest. (Quick question: How many Americans know who Sergei Magnitsky is?)
Iran, North Korea, and China are a different matter. All three issues could hurt the White House. But for that to happen, Romney has to have a persuasive answer to two questions: What would he do differently? And why should voters believe it would work? That is easier said than done. The last three presidents have struggled in their dealings with each of these countries, and Romney is unlikely to come to any answers that his predecessors haven’t already thought of and tried. The temptation then becomes to turn up the rhetorical heat. The White House, however, might be able to turn that against Romney by painting him as reckless. Americans may say they want to get tough with bad guys, but they are also pretty war weary right now.
However, if Romney can make the case that he has workable alternatives, then he may be able to close the gap significantly on foreign policy before November. Whether that will matter will ultimately depend on whether events abroad make foreign policy more salient to American voters.