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This Bernie Sanders ad perfectly demonstrates his problem on foreign policy

Bernie Sanders's presidential campaign has released a 30-second ad on a subject that the candidate doesn't usually put front and center: foreign policy – specifically, ISIS:

The video's message is pretty straightforward: A President Sanders would fight ISIS by building a coalition of anti-ISIS allies, but would not send American ground troops. That's a politically palatable message, and it also happens to be the strategy currently employed by President Obama.

But the purpose of the ad is primarily political, and the spot attempts to thread a difficult political needle by communicating a message I would summarize as something like this:

  1. A President Sanders will "end the quagmire of perpetual warfare in the Middle East."
  2. This quagmire is the fault of the Washington status quo, which Sanders's campaign is broadly about challenging.
  3. Sanders will challenge that status quo on foreign policy by doing exactly what Obama is already doing.

Sanders doesn't talk about foreign policy much, and when political observers try to explain that, they generally say the issue is that he just doesn't get it or just doesn't care about it, or that his actual views are more centrist than his base might like.

But this ad speaks to what I suspect is the actual cause: Sanders wants to position himself as challenging the status quo, but on foreign policy he is pretty in line with that status quo. At the same time, he doesn't want to embrace Obama on foreign policy during the primary, because that policy is associated with one Hillary Clinton.

In sum, when it comes to foreign policy, Sanders doesn't feel he can embrace Obama and doesn't feel he can offer a compelling alternative. So he is trying to position himself as challenging the status quo while in fact upholding it.

That perhaps explains why this ad talks more about the 2003 Iraq War: Sanders wants to remind voters that Hillary Clinton voted for the invasion and he did not. That certainly worked well for Obama back in 2008. But that vote is now well over a decade old, so it's not clear how much that will resonate.

Perhaps Sanders is hoping that Clinton, in anticipation of the general election, will edge to the right, thus allowing him to use messages like this one to hit her from the left. But this is all a bit silly, because Sanders and Clinton are offering broadly the same position on ISIS, which is to maintain the Obama administration's current policies.

Clinton herself has a different version of this problem, though not one that will become quite as awkward until she gets to the general election (assuming she does). She, as former secretary of state, is too close to the Obama foreign policy legacy to run much against it, and will be forced to own a legacy that is not particularly popular among the general electorate. But for purposes of the primary, she can just remind people that they like Obama and be mostly okay.

By the way, the Republican candidates are doing the exact same thing: Their plans are broadly identical to Obama's. But this is easier for them to manage, in political terms, because they can criticize Obama and then present their similar plans as novel.

Democratic candidates are in the awkward position of feeling they can neither fully embrace nor reject Obama on these issues. So you get ads like this one, which, if you removed the references to ISIS, could just as easily have come out of the 2004 or 2008 election cycles when George W. Bush was still in office.

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