Russia is attempting to refashion international borders on a whim. China is literally building islands in the South China Sea in order to create territorial claims on crucial shipping lanes. Libya is in an utter state of disarray. The Islamic State has seized control of large parts of Iraq and Syria, and its adherents are spreading terror across the globe. Refugees are spilling out of Syria, turning up on Europe’s shores, and the world lacks any adequate method to ensure their identities. Iran is already testing the limits of its just-struck nuclear deal, and it’s continuing to engage in proxy wars with Sunni nations across the Middle East. And terrorist attacks in Egypt, Lebanon, Paris and San Bernardino have people terrified at the reach of ISIS militants.
Is it any wonder then that this has become a foreign policy election? As much as Republican candidates may want to discuss their plans to get economic growth back on track or lay out their alternatives to Obamacare, and as much as Democrats desperately want to talk about climate change and the minimum wage, voters feel increasingly unsafe, and they’re looking for a candidate who can re-establish some sense of security.
A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released on Monday shows that terrorism and national security issues have been thrust into the policy spotlight following the recent terror attacks. According to the poll, 40 percent of Americans say national security and terrorism should be the government’s top priority, and more than 60 percent include it in the top two, which is up more than 21 percent from eight months ago.
“For most of 2015, our country’s mood and thus the presidential election was defined by anger and the unevenness of the economic recovery, and now that has abruptly changed to fear,” Fred Yang, a Democratic pollster who conducted the survey with Republican Bill McInturff told the Wall Street Journal.
Unsurprisingly, the shifting policy dynamic has thrown Democrat candidates for a loop. Josh Kraushaar writes for National Journal:
The disconnect between President Obama and the American public on the urgency of the ISIS threat is a problem for his party in 2016, especially for Hillary Clinton.
Democrats are at risk of politically marginalizing themselves on national security in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, catering to a base that seems disconnected from the growing anxiety that the public feels over the threat from Islamic terrorism. During a month when a horrific terrorist attack killed 130 in Paris and a homegrown, ISIS-inspired attack killed 14 in San Bernardino, California, the Democratic Party’s major focus has been on climate change and gun control.
This is not the usual political dynamic. Typically, traumatic events like terrorist attacks are following by bumps in the polls, the result of Americans rallying behind their leader. Think, President Clinton after Oklahoma City or George W. Bush following 9/11. But as Kraushaar writes, “instead of acting as a commander in chief, Obama has become a polarizer in chief,” in no small part because he has used the tragedies to promote wedge issues like gun control or attack Republicans for their measured approach to Syrian refugees.
Most damningly, the president has seemed sedate, and particularly unmoved by the ISIS threat. Early on he referred to them as a “jayvee team,” the day before the Paris attacks argued that “we have contained them,” and even after events forced him to give an Oval Office address, he said that his plan was working.
Democratic candidates have arguably been even more dismissive of the threat. In the first debate Martin O’Malley said the greatest national security threats to America were a nuclear Iran, ISIS and “climate change, of course.” And in the second, which was the day after the Paris attacks, Sen. Bernie Sanders reiterated his early position that climate change was the biggest national security threat and argued that it is “directly related to the growth of terrorism.”
Fortunately, in last night’s Republican debate, viewers were treated to a range of views and plans about the disastrous state of world affairs, with one unifying threat: A foreign policy fluency that is unmatched on the Democrat ticket. The candidates offered a realistic assessment of the threats, concrete ideas for how to solve them, and a plan to restore America’s standing in the world.
That’s what voters want to hear. And that’s exactly what Democrats can’t offer them.