As Ankit noted earlier this week, in a new interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attacked President Barack Obama’s foreign policy principle of not doing stupid stuff. In doing so, she revealed herself to be more hawkish than President Obama on foreign policy, which had previously only been known to those with memory spans of a year or more.
In other words, it came as news to most of the U.S. media and punditry. This revelation has in turn spurred feverish speculation in some circles about whether Hillary Clinton is too hawkish on foreign policy to become the next U.S. president (to be fair, August is a slow news month, and Hillary Clinton/2016 election news is always in vogue.)
Don’t bet on it. As seems to be true in most countries, the economy and jobs almost always decide national elections, and foreign policy is almost never important. A brief review of recent American presidential elections underscores this fact. For instance, George H.W. Bush had a nearly impeccable foreign policy record during his one term in office. And yet, he was defeated in the 1992 presidential election by then-Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, who boasted almost no foreign policy experience. President Clinton’s foreign policy record during the first term left much to be desired. Yet he sailed to victory in the 1996 election.
Similarly, Vice President Al Gore boasted much greater foreign policy experience than George W. Bush in the 2000 election. Indeed, Bush almost flaunted his foreign policy inexperience during the campaign, and yet he still prevailed. The 2008 presidential election was even more imbalanced on foreign policy, with Senator John McCain boasting heroic military service and decades of foreign policy experience on Capitol Hill. Yet he was easily defeated by Senator Barack Obama, who had very little foreign policy or any national political experience.
The only exception to this rule is when the economy is rather good and foreign policy is really bad. And for American voters, foreign policy is only really bad when the country is bogged down in long, pointless ground wars and American soldiers are dying as a result. Thus, foreign policy was an important issue in the 1968 and 2004 presidential elections.
Even in these rare exceptions, however, being hawkish doesn’t seem to be a deficiency but an attribute. Thus, while Lyndon B. Johnson decided against running for re-election in 1968 because of his disastrous policies in Vietnam, Vice President Hubert Humphrey’s strident opposition to the Vietnam War resulted in a landslide victory for Richard Nixon. Similarly, George W. Bush was able to win re-election in part by painting John Kerry as overly dovish.
In any case, the 2016 election is unlikely to be one of the exceptional cases when foreign policy is important. While the economy is improving, the average American remains extremely anxious about the recovery. There is little reason to think the economy will be strong enough by 2016 that it won’t be a major concern for most of the American electorate. In the same vein, it seems unlikely that President Obama will have plunged the country into a huge, prolonged ground war like those in Vietnam and Iraq.
That jobs and the economy are American voters’ top concerns, while foreign policy and national security are not, is confirmed by nearly every poll over the last few years. Whenever voters have been asked what their most important concern is, jobs and the economy are always a strong plurality while foreign policy and national security issues hover around 5 percent (and it’s safe to assume that many of those most concerned about issues like terrorism would want a more hawkish approach). In some polls, they aren’t listed at all.
Of course, even if foreign policy won’t be important in the 2016 general election, it could hinder Hillary Clinton’s chances of securing the Democratic nomination. This indeed seems to be the main concern of pundits raising the prospect of Clinton being too hawkish to be president. To bolster their claims, they point to the 2008 Democratic primary, which Clinton allegedly lost to Obama because she had initially voted for the Iraq War.
This too seems unlikely. To begin with, I’ve always felt Clinton’s Iraq War vote was always over-emphasized in accounts of why she lost the primary. Even if it was the decisive factor, however, the 2008 primaries took place at a time when the economy was still performing relatively well (or at least it appeared to be in the eyes of most voters), while the U.S. was still heavily involved in Iraq. This won’t be the case in 2016.
Indeed, the polls showing that voters don’t care about foreign policy probably apply more to Democratic voters than their Republican counterparts. That is, Democratic primary voters are probably less likely to cite terrorism or national security as their top concern than the general electorate writ large. Furthermore, statistical evidence (the bane of all pundits) suggests that Hillary Clinton remains popular among liberal Democrats, and doesn’t have a problem on her left flank. Moreover, nearly all of the Democratic foreign policy establishment is likely to align itself with Clinton for the primaries, making it difficult for any challengers to attack her on this issue. In any case, even if she does face issues for being too hawkish, she’ll likely be able to quickly allay these by softening some of her positions. This should be especially easy to do with President Obama and many other prominent Democrats likely in her corner.