Last night’s presidential candidate debate in Washington was great — for wonks like me. For 120 minutes, eight leaders of the GOP’s Occupy the White House movement sparred over foreign policy and national security.
The good news is that voters who skipped “Dancing with the Stars” had an opportunity to learn a lot about what kind of commander-in-chief each of the candidates might make. They covered a lot of ground in two hours. Viewers should have been able to walk away from that debate knowing which candidate best matched up with their views on how a president should go about keeping America safe, free, and prosperous.
The showdown in D.C. offered an opportunity to get a real sense of the character and vision of each candidate. And, to some extent, that matters more than particular policy prescriptions.
Likely as not, the world will be a very different place by January 2013. Proposals that might make sense today may not be relevant then. A year from now, Iran may have the bomb. Syria might be engulfed in civil war. China could be in the grip of a recession. The Taliban may be in Kabul. It was more important that we learned more about how these would-be presidents saw the place of America in the world — and we did.
The bad news is that the field has a long way to go in distinguishing how that vision differs from the course the country is currently on. Not having a nice word for the president’s foreign policy is not enough. Most Americans tend to assume that the candidate they support for other reasons must also have the best ideas for keeping the nation safe. The candidate that in the end gets picked to carry the GOP banner will likely be picked by most voters for their stances on issues other than foreign policy. Likewise, President Obama’s posse will likely support him regardless of how things go abroad.
However, those who enter the next election cycle without a preference will pay attention to what both sides have to say. Americans of all political stripes tend to rank national security as an important issue, even as they admit to pollsters (at least before last night’s debate) that they know little about the security platforms of the candidates.
Like it or not, the Obama Doctrine has guided U.S. foreign policy since the president took office. Mr. Obama believes in treaties and outsourcing security to the U.N. He wants to substitute soft power for hard power. In general, he wants America to just do less in the world and secure our interests on the cheap so we can spend more on “stimulus” programs and other favored initiatives here at home.
The economy will no doubt dominate the next election. But for some voters, the contest could very well turn on the existential issue of national security. That should make the Obama Doctrine a centerpiece in the general election debate. President Obama will be ready for that. The GOP nominee needs to be ready, too.
James Jay Carafano is director of The Heritage Foundation’s Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies.
First appeared in The Daily Caller