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Why Democratic foreign policy wonks are worried about the election

(Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

For all the issues that Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have debated in their surprisingly competitive primary, there is one that has been unusually absent: foreign policy. And the party's foreign policy insiders are not happy about it.

Over the past week, I've called up several members of the Democratic and liberal foreign policy establishment and asked them how they think the campaign is going on their issues.

All of them said that both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are more or less ignoring foreign policy in the primary. And while they saw different reasons for this, some sympathetic and some not, they generally agreed that this could create real problems for whoever wins the primary once it comes time for the general election — and that this hints at some deeper issues for Democrats on foreign policy.

Why Clinton and Sanders are largely ignoring foreign policy

Hillary Clinton (Karen Bleier/AFP via Getty Images)

The most notable thing about foreign policy in the Democratic primary, I heard in almost all of my conversations, is how absent it's been.

"It's definitely true that foreign and security policy has taken a back seat to some of the other core issues," Ken Gude, a senior fellow with the Center for American Progress's national security team, told me. "What has been animating these primary campaigns so far [has been] the economy, income inequality, health care, climate change — those kinds of issues."

When foreign policy has come up, some of the experts say, the conversation hasn't been particularly sophisticated. Debate answers from both leading candidates on issues like ISIS have been vague; attacks outside the debates have largely fallen flat.

When the candidates do discuss foreign policy, it's typically been reactive, trying to form positions on news events rather than asserting a larger worldview. And this has made those rare discussions even worse than the silence, some experts told me.

"The discussion of national security in the presidential debate is terrible," Heather Hurlburt, the director for new models of policy change at the New America Foundation, says. "You sit around and say, 'If only they would talk more about our issues in the context of the presidential campaign,' and then they do. Just be careful what you wish for."

"Whenever there's a crisis, Democratic leaders scramble to make statements about what we should do," Matt Duss, the president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, says. "But there's a failure to constantly articulate a progressive vision for foreign policy."

One core issue may be that Democratic voters don't have much appetite for a foreign policy–oriented campaign. Polls find that Democrats are much more likely to say that the economy, health care, and the environment are the campaign's top issues rather than foreign affairs.

Moreover, Clinton takes a more hawkish view of foreign affairs than your average Democratic primary voter, so it makes sense that she'd try to keep her profile on these issues as low as possible.

"Hillary is probably a little more interventionist than the Democratic base would like," Rachel Kleinfeld, senior associate in the Democracy and Rule of Law Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says. "Bernie Sanders is closer to where the Democratic base is."

Yet Sanders has spent very little time attacking Clinton as a hawk: "That's not the message he wants his campaign to be about," as Kleinfeld put it. Throughout his career, Sanders has had a single-minded focus on economic inequality and the power of the rich — and so has his campaign.

During his time in the House and Senate, the closest Sanders came to building serious foreign policy expertise was his time on veterans affairs. But developing policies to help soldiers after wars doesn't really help you learn about, say, how to handle terrorism or China. The result is a candidate who just isn't really well-versed in foreign policy and seems uncomfortable talking about it.

"You do have Democrats who make the choice, either by what committee they're on or where they travel or where they are in their districts, to make the effort to learn the vocabulary and get comfortable with [foreign policy]," Hurlburt says. "Sanders made the decision to learn about veterans ... but it's not the same thing."

Sanders's lack of interest in foreign policy has shown during the campaign. He's taken surprisingly conventional positions for a self-described socialist (he supported the bombing campaign against ISIS, for instance), and often sounds awkward when he does talk about foreign policy. For instance, he called Jordan's absolute monarch a "hero" during a recent debate.

As a result, whether he intends to or not, Sanders is largely ceding foreign policy to Clinton, who can claim experience on the issue more or less unchallenged.

"Sanders has been trying to position himself where the insurgent Democratic voter is — while not really wanting to go all the way there," Hurlburt says. "That's a major drawback for him."

Experts worry a lack of attention on foreign policy now will hurt Democrats in the general

(Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

The Democratic candidates can sidestep foreign policy now, but they won't be able to in the general election. Public concern about terrorism has been increasing since ISIS's rise in 2014. For the first time since 9/11, a majority of Americans are dissatisfied with the country's security from terrorism.

Foreign policy has featured heavily in the Republican campaign, meanwhile, and whoever wins the GOP nomination seems likely to emphasize the issue heavily.

Democratic foreign policy experts I spoke to worry that Democrats are squandering an opportunity to prepare for the looming foreign policy fight. The Democrats' lack of any real foreign policy debate now will put them at a disadvantage when it comes time for them to articulate and defend their views on a subject that will feature significantly in the general.

"When we look at the general electorate, national security and terrorism are gaining salience as issues," Gude says. "Democrats better start taking that a little more seriously in the primary campaign."

"In my fantasy world, [Sanders] would get really good advisers, who would put forward really substantive and interesting policies. In some cases those would agree very strongly with Clinton's, and in a few they would differ," Hurlburt says. "We'd then actually showcase that the Democrats are the party where the serious and thoughtful debate about what the US's role in the world should be."

But that's not happening, and as a result Democrats are likely going to enter the general with a weaker message on foreign policy.

"Whoever wins, we're still going to see a major contrast [with the Republican]," Duss says. "It'd be a much easier debate to have if these Democratic candidates had spent a lot more time articulating what their vision is, and constantly articulating why it's important and why it's right."

The Democratic Party's post-Obama drift on foreign policy

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, together on stage. She appears to be about to pat him on the back. Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty

This is all a major and telling change from 2008, when Democrats ran heavily on foreign policy — largely by drawing a distinction with George W. Bush.

Now, with Obama in office, Democrats don't have a GOP president to run against. And it may not be sufficient to run on Obama's legacy alone, given Americans' growing anxiety about the state of the world today.

"It used to be that Democrats defined themselves against the Republicans on foreign policy," Kleinfeld says. "But the Republicans are so incoherent now that the Democrats actually have to just define themselves."

Some of the experts I spoke to also said this reflects a deeper problem for the Democratic Party. The party's operatives and activists are typically motivated by domestic issues such as inequality or racism, rather than by foreign policy. This has left the party institutionally prepared for foreign policy fights.

"There are a lot of people in the Democratic Party who just want to focus on life at home," Kleinfeld says. "There's a large portion of low-income people, people of color ... who have very burning domestic issues they want to focus on. They don't want us to be distracted."

As a result, there just isn't the same kind of institutional support or pressure on foreign policy that exists for Republicans — even though it might be in the party's interest in the general election to develop a better message on it. Much of the party, it seems, has long agreed with Sanders that we need to focus principally on what's going on at home.

"Sanders, and the consultants around him, the Tad Devines of the world, very much represent that [worldview]," Hurlburt says. And right now, it seems like they're carrying the day.

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