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What they said vs what they really meant: Democratic candidates on "America's greatest threat"

About an hour into the first Democratic debate, CNN host Anderson Cooper asked a question that was designed to elicit a single-word and probably clichéd answer, but ended up being pretty revealing.

That question: "What is the greatest national security threat to the United States?"

Here's what the debate participants said, and what their answers suggest about how they're approaching foreign policy as candidates and, potentially, as policymakers.

Lincoln Chafee: "It's certainly the chaos in the Middle East. No doubt about it. It all started with the Iraq invasion."

Translation: I'm subtweeting Hillary Clinton but don't have a lot of ideas myself.

What it says about Chafee: Chafee came into this clearly seeking to challenge Clinton, but also bizarrely often not mentioning her by name — his opening comments were about how he doesn't have any scandals, for example. This is a good answer if you want to oppose Hillary Clinton, but if Chafee sincerely wants to run for president, then this is also a risky answer. There's a good reason Democratic candidates aren't eager to talk about the Middle East: They don't want to run on President Obama's record on the Mideast, but they also don't want to run against it. And while Chafee is generally dovish, unlike Bernie Sanders he is not really willing to brave the possible controversy of taking particularly specific policy positions. Declaring you want to take on the Middle East without having a really good plan to do so is perhaps not the wisest.

Martin O'Malley: "I believe nuclear Iran along with the spread of ISIL; climate change makes cascading threats worse."

Translation: Wouldn't we rather be talking about climate change than foreign policy?

What this says about O'Malley: It's puzzling he cited nuclear Iran given that he supports the Iran nuclear deal — shouldn't that reduce it beneath the status of America's greatest threat? But the rest is a reference to O'Malley's belief that climate change helped drive the Syrian civil war and thus the rise of ISIS. I would call that theory debatable, but it's got at least some scholarly research behind it. More to the point, it's politically smart by allowing him to seem like he is addressing Middle Eastern security issues while in fact dodging Middle Eastern security issues by pivoting to climate change instead — which is a more popular issue among Democrats anyway.

Hillary Clinton: "It has to be continued threat from the spread of nuclear weapons, nuclear material that can fall into the wrong hands. I know the terrorists are constantly seeking it. That's why we have to stay vigilant. Also united around the world to prevent that."

Translation: I'm still the one who is ready for the 3 am phone call.

What this says about Clinton: It at first sounded like Clinton was ready to take a bravely Reaganesque stand for global abolition of nuclear weapons, but it turned out she was going to make a politically canny but ultimately unhelpful easy answer. Who could possibly disagree that a nuclear-armed terrorist would be scary and bad? At the same time, unlike Syria or Russia policy, there is no contentious political fight or policy deadlock on this. And it has the merits of being specific enough to be a tough-sounding answer specific to national security. So she gets to sound like the tough candidate, and the one who will be hard-nosed on security threats — it's a sort of throwback to her 2008 campaign ad about the 3am phone call — without actually taking any sort of difficult policy positions.

Bernie Sanders: "The scientific community is telling us, if we do not address the climate change, transform our energy system away from fossil fuel, the planet we'll be leaving our kids and our grandchildren may well not be habitable."

Translation: I am not a foreign policy candidate, I am a social justice candidate.

What this says about Sanders: He hasn't really emphasized foreign policy in his campaign, and has appeared at times shaky on it. So it makes sense that he wouldn't treat this as a foreign policy question at all, but rather would use a wider definition of "national security threat" that includes climate change, which in policy terms is certainly sound. Depending on your view of Sanders, this was either a way to dodge a question that was probably intended to be about foreign policy, or it is Sanders showing us that he's different, that he takes into account larger issues and how they affect Americans.

Jim Webb: "Our relations with China. Our greatest day-to-day threat is cyber warfare against this country. Our greatest military operational threat is resolving these situations in the Middle East."

Translation: Boy, I sure do have a weird preoccupation with China.

What it says about Webb: The former senator seems a little obsessed with China; earlier in the debate, he responded to a question about the Middle East with a bizarre rant lecturing China's leadership. He seems to see China not as a difficult but important foreign policy issue, but rather as a Cold War–style threat. That is odd on a few levels — if you're going to look for the major powers threat to call out, isn't Russia sort of the obvious choice? Haven't things with China, rocky as they are, been comparably much smoother and perhaps even improving? What possible polling could indicate this is a good political move? Chinese hacking is bad, sure, but is China's theft of military secrets really worse than ISIS or Russian military aggression? Like a lot of Webb's performance, this was just an odd moment.