Breaking with usual campaign practice, Mitt Romney selected a fellow foreign policy neophyte as his running mate. But, as with the 1992 Clinton/Gore ticket, that might be precisely the point.
Left, Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan campaign in Virginia. Left, Bill Clinton and Al Gore in Texas 16 years prior. (Reuters, AP)
Articles about Paul Ryan's foreign policy experience tend to be short, and to mostly talk about anything but. The Wisconsin congressman and now Republican vice presidential candidate has long focused on domestic policy, particularly social programs and the budget. Like Romney, he has little to no record on foreign policy or national security. Oft-quoted political analyst Larry Sabato called him "just a generic Republican on foreign policy" who, also like Romney, has tended to follow the party's lead. His one foreign policy issue seems to be overturning the Cuba embargo, the sort of thing that appeals to foreign policy dorks (like me) but does poorly among the GOP establishment and swing Florida voters, meaning that we will probably not hear much about it during the campaign.
Foreign policy and national security are big parts of the U.S. president's job, which is part of why candidates with thin records -- such as Barack Obama in 2008 or George W. Bush in 2000 -- tend to round out their tickets with stalwarts like Joe Biden or Dick Cheney. But the Romney campaign seems to have steered away from foreign policy -- its bare-minimum tour of three U.S. allies last month didn't go so well -- and with the Ryan pick likely confirms that they will not be emphasizing this traditionally Republic issue. The half-hearted defenses of Ryan's foreign policy record tend to either tout his lack of experience as a virtue, as Newt Gingrich did, or to argue that foreign policy isn't that important anyway.
Voters might actually agree with that latter argument. According to a new Reuters poll, only four percent of Americans identify foreign affairs as "the most important issue facing the U.S. today," about a third of what it was two years ago. It's tied with "morality" for the proportion of voters who call it their top concern. By comparison, 45 percent say they care most about the economy (about half of those specifying it down to unemployment) and 30 percent cite other "domestic issues."
As if that weren't enough reason for Romney to focus away from foreign policy (and, again, putting aside his less than graceful attempts at diplomacy so far), Reuters poll respondents also seem to consider it an area that favors Obama. A significant 51 percent say Obama is "stronger" on foreign policy (50 percent on "the war on terror" and 47 percent on national security), while only 35 percent say Romney is the stronger. Excepting health care, on which Obama scores 53 percent to Romney's 36, it's Obama's strongest issue.
It's unusual for a presidential ticket to include two foreign policy neophytes, but not without precedent: in 1992, Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton selected U.S. Senator Al Gore, who like Ryan had focused largely on domestic issues (though Gore did sit on the Homeland Security and Armed Services committees), to run against President George H.W. Bush*. The elder Bush ran on one of the most sterling foreign policy records of the 20th century: he'd overseen the peaceful dissolution of the Soviet Union and its withdrawal from Europe and Asia, arranged the Israeli-Palestinian peace conference in Madrid, and had successfully (and carefully) ejected Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, sending his approval rating skyrocketing to an historic 89 percent.
The 1992 race between Bush and Clinton yielded democratic strategist James Carville's famous dictum, "It's the economy, stupid." The economy sagged into recession, Bush's disapproval rating climbed to an alarming 64 percent in August 1992, and three months later voters ousted the foreign policy master for the two inexperienced foreign policy amateurs who preferred to talk about health care and the economy. Sound familiar?
* - Update: Some readers have suggested that it's unfair to draw a one-to-one comparison between Al Gore and Paul Ryan in terms of foreign policy experience. And they're right! Gore famously served during the Vietnam War as a military reporter. As a senator since 1985 and member of Armed Services and Homeland Security Committees, he played a role in such foreign policies as the U.S.-Soviet Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which he touted during his 1988 bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. Still, the point is that, although he might have been more experienced than then-Governor Clinton, with seven years in the Senate his foreign policy record was a bit closer to that of three-year Senator Barack Obama than to 36-year Senator Joe Biden.
If Clinton had sought to make balancing his ticket's foreign policy experience a primary mission in selecting his vice president, he might have chosen Senator and former Navy SEAL Bob Kerrey (who also ran against Clinton in the 1992 primary) or the more experienced and foreign policy-focused Senator Sam Nunn, as two hypothetical examples, over Gore. That's not to discount Gore's foreign policy record, only to point out that, if Clinton had wanted a strong foreign policy name to balance his ticket along the lines of when Obama chose Biden or George W. Bush chose Cheney, he could have found options along those lines. But Clinton, despite his own lack of foreign policy experience, didn't choose a foreign policy heavyweight like Nunn. This doesn't mean that Clinton-Gore and Romney-Ryan have entirely analogous records, but it does suggest a similarity in the degree to which they have not chosen to emphasis foreign policy while running against a sitting president with a strong foreign policy record.
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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.