By Nick DAngelo
Since 1952 every major party presidential ticket has had a focus on foreign policy. The previous cycle, Governor Thomas Dewey picked fellow Governor Earl Warren as his running mate, and they lost. In modern elections, if the presidential nominee was not himself intimately knowledgeable about foreign affairs, he selected a vice presidential nominee who was. From long-serving senators to ambassadors to cabinet members, all have brought considerable expertise to the ticket, especially in an era of increasing globalization.
2012 breaks that trend. The Romney-Ryan ticket is the first in 64 years in which neither nominee has any considerable knowledge of foreign policy. The centerpiece of this election has always been the economy. Therefore, having a businessman turned governor team up with a Budget Committee chairman seems like a strong idea. It solidifies a message of financial overhaul and fiscal austerity. But it also ignores a larger theme, and a stronger narrative, that could play well for the Republican ticket.
Ronald Reagan, despite winning an electoral landslide in 1980, was down eight percentage points against incumbent Jimmy Carter one week before the election. Largely helped by the single presidential debate on October 28, Reagan also played to a continued theme of failed leadership in both economic and foreign fields. Managing to increase both inflation and unemployment during his four-year term (a mysterious marvel to any economics major), Carter also suffered from a failed policy in the Middle East, mounting threats from the Soviet Union and a terrorist hostage crisis. A former state executive without any foreign policy experience, Reagan selected as his running mate a man who had served as CIA director, envoy to China and ambassador to the United Nations.
Some have pointed to the election of 1980 as a guide for analyzing the current one, but Reagan’s campaign strategy can hardly be duplicated by Governor Romney without a discussion of foreign affairs. There is a lot to talk about after all: a continuing occupation of Afghanistan, the murder of a U.S. ambassador in an increasingly hostile region, a weakening relationship with our only ally in the Middle East and the growing threat of a nuclear Iran. And yet Governor Romney refuses to expand the narrative. In fact, in his only major foreign policy address last week the Republican nominee chose to highlight the misuse of foreign aid. Neither gutsy nor presidential, it was a flop.
Criticizing Governor Romney’s campaign strategy must include a serious discussion over his selection of a vice president. In 2008, when the election seemed focused entirely on the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Senator John McCain was caught off guard as that focus shifted in September to the economy—a topic neither he nor his running mate were particularly gifted in. Then many questioned whether McCain should have selected a Romney or a Portman. It appears history has repeated itself.
Should it have been Condoleezza Rice? The former U.S. Secretary of State is the only Bush administration official to leave office with a solid reputation. Now seen as an intellectual of the Republican Party, her address to the national convention in August was cited as perhaps the best speech of those four days. Delivering her remarks from four pages of handwritten notes, Rice electrified a base that has been distant from Romney and fueled speculation over her own political future.
During the summer, Rice was consistently ranked as one of the top choices for Governor Romney, sparking perhaps an intense debate over the pros and cons of adding her to the Republican ticket. Listed as the top pick by the conservative website Drudge Report, Rice was described by CNN’s Senior Congressional correspondent Dana Bash as “an intellectual known for her powerhouse smarts” with “a good personal story.” Rice was the only child of a black family growing up in the segregated South, eventually becoming a concert pianist and the provost of Stanford University before serving as the closest adviser to George W. Bush.
What is most interesting though is that Rice was one of the only would-be vice presidential nominees with a strong focus on foreign policy. The Top 10 List was dominated by state governors and fresh-faced senators, with the exception of General David Petraeus—which would have been an even further leap than Rice herself.
In 2012, Republicans have lost a serious opportunity in the debate. Allowing President Obama to escape from defending an abysmal foreign policy record is a naïve and poor strategy. Just as we were four years ago, Republicans will be left with the question: what if the vice president had been different?