Let’s focus on foreign policy

In 2008, presidential candidates are not giving sustained emphasis to foreign policy, but those concerns are present and candidates do make regular references to the wider world. In the Democratic debate in Los Angeles on Jan. 31, Hillary Rodham Clinton took a swipe at Barack Obama’s declared willingness to meet with dictators.

During the Jan. 30 Republican debate at the Reagan Library, Mike Huckabee employed foreign policy in denouncing current tax-rebate proposals. He stressed such action will only increase federal debt, placing us further in hock to other countries. Huckabee singled out China as a buyer of our bonds and also a security threat, steadily expanding in military as well as economic power.

During the same debate, Ron Paul stressed lack of respect for the Constitution in Washington. He regularly chides fellow members of Congress for failing to have a formal declaration of war before we use armed forces overseas. In his view, Iraq is only the latest of a series of disturbing examples.

Of course, neither Huckabee nor Paul is a front-runner. That distinction goes to John McCain, followed by Mitt Romney. The recent South Carolina and Florida primaries, along with New Hampshire earlier in January, were all won by McCain.

None of these contenders stresses foreign policy in the very emphatic manner, for example, that John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon did in their 1960 contest. Nixon used international travel and analysis greatly to expand the modern vice presidency. His running mate that year, Henry Cabot Lodge, was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. For years, Lodge received almost daily national visibility thanks to television coverage of U.N. sessions, including intense Soviet-American debates.

The first Kennedy-Nixon debate was supposed to focus on domestic matters, but Kennedy unilaterally changed the rules by comparing the U.S. economy to the allegedly stronger Soviet Union’s, then repeatedly emphasizing Cold War considerations. A clearly nonplussed Nixon did not complain, and neither did the panel of journalist questioners, who probably personally favored Kennedy. In those days, reporters were much more likely to be partisan Democrats (though not necessarily liberals). Kennedy, who had worked briefly as a journalist, was also far more accessible than the remarkably aloof Nixon.

Yet in more subtle ways, foreign policy remains a very significant part of presidential election politics. McCain is an authentic American hero, a Navy pilot shot down over North Vietnam who spent years as a prisoner of war. A Vietnamese plaque at the pond in Hanoi where he came down after parachuting from his crippled plane respectfully honors the courage of this enemy.

The McCain campaign has made special efforts to appeal to the military and to veterans groups. At rallies, he often recognizes individuals who have served. An estimated 30 percent and 40 percent of Republican voters in the South Carolina and Florida primaries, respectively, are veterans or affiliated with the military.

In reality, there is no escaping foreign policy. For approximately a quarter-century, the Republicans have been viewed by many Americans as the more reliable party on national security. That is a benefit to McCain, and to win the White House Clinton or Obama must address that reality.

(Arthur I. Cyr is a professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War.” He can be reached at acyr(at)carthage.edu.)