The GOP's 2016 Foreign Policy Problem

Republicans have an edge on international affairs, but their crop of 2016 contenders are untested, especially compared with Hillary Clinton.

The worsening crises overseas have made Republicans sound downright excited to run against Hillary Clinton, hoping to use her record as secretary of State on everything from Benghazi to the Russian "reset" as an indictment of her expected candidacy. They'd certainly be aided by favorability ratings that have dipped in recent weeks as Clinton's record has been more closely scrutinized. (Indeed, she's already distancing herself from the president's foreign policy, which she helped him run, before the midterms are even completed.)

But Republicans could face a much tougher challenge than they think due to a roster of potential contenders who lack requisite foreign policy experience in a presidential election that's likely to be driven by national security issues.

Of the prospective candidates, only Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida has strong foreign policy credentials, with a seat on the Foreign Relations Committee and a record in the Senate of being an outspoken advocate for American intervention. The early conventional wisdom that Republicans need to elect a Washington outsider—a little-known governor with some charisma—looks outdated with growing turbulence abroad. And Rand Paul's bet on Republicans growing more noninterventionist is looking wildly off base, as polls show the party significantly more hawkish than the overall public, even supporting ground troops in Iraq and Syria. It's never a good sign when you have to write a column headlined: "I Am Not an Isolationist."

For a sign of the GOP worries, just look at whose names have cropped up in the last month as prospective candidates: Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush. It's a direct result of the growing anxiety that Republicans lack a statesman-like candidate who can compete with Hillary Clinton on stature. Romney's prescient warnings during the 2012 presidential debates about the geopolitical threat posed by Russia and the risk of prematurely withdrawing troops in Iraq have sparked a wave of nostalgia for a third campaign. He's even stoked the speculation a bit, by suggesting that he wouldn't entirely rule out another run—however remote the possibility.

Meanwhile, Jeb Bush's inner circle is teasing out renewed interest in a campaign to Politico's Mike Allen, who noted that the former Florida governor is receiving "foreign policy tutoring" as part of his prep work. The younger Bush is known more for his advocacy on immigration and education reform, but by virtue of his last name, will always be connected to his brother's foreign policy legacy. That was once a major vulnerability, but the Bush brand has been somewhat rehabilitated as President Obama finds himself engaged in the "war on terror" that he spent most of his tenure downplaying.

Neither Romney nor Bush, whether they run or not, would be favored to emerge as the nominee. Romney's favorables are still underwater and he's a symbol of the GOP's past, not its future. Bush is out of step with the party's base on numerous issues, and has a rusty political antenna. But their interest is in direct response to the muddled GOP field. Right now, having a deep bench isn't as valuable as having a few seasoned contenders.

Rubio is the most intriguing Republican to watch going forward, with national security reemerging as a top issue. He took a risky vote last week supporting the president's authorization to arm Syrian rebels, while Paul and Sen. Ted Cruz opposed it. He's comfortable speaking off the cuff about foreign policy, and his muscular internationalism is squarely in line with prevailing GOP sentiment. His speech at the John Hay Initiative this month calling for increased defense spending was well-received by conservatives, and could serve as a blueprint for the senator's vision. His biggest challenge is proving he has the experience, after one term in the Senate, to be taken seriously.

Then there are the two Republican contenders whose blunt, no-nonsense governing style could be channeled into a tough-on-terrorism image: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Christie's specific views on foreign policy are unclear, but he's hinted that he hails from the hawkish wing of the Republican Party. Last year, on a Republican governors' panel, he criticized Rand Paul for challenging government surveillance programs and being naive about the threat of terrorism. Governing New Jersey, where the threat of terrorism is acute, gives him an advantage on national security over his gubernatorial counterparts.

Perry boasts the same decisive approach as Christie, and showcased his executive mettle in reacting to the influx of undocumented Central American children crossing into the country this summer. He deployed 1,000 National Guard troops to help secure the border, characterizing it as an issue of national security at the time. It may be a tough to sell voters on another straight-talking Texas governor, but Perry's take-charge style is more in line with today's public mood than it was during his ill-fated 2012 run.

But the rest of the GOP field is entirely untested on foreign policy. If Rand Paul were the nominee, many hawkish GOP voters could credibly defect to Clinton. Paul Ryan has been focused on budgets and entitlement reform during his time in Congress, not the Middle East. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, if he runs, would have to learn on the fly as a candidate. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, the wonkiest prospect of the bunch, has been conspicuously quiet when it comes to international affairs.

At the beginning of the year, few Republicans expected national security to play a significant role in the campaign. Now that calculus is changing fast. Indeed, President Obama said he expects that military operations against ISIS could take at least several years to complete, which would last well into the next presidential election.

Republicans now hold a commanding edge over Democrats on which party is best trusted to handle international affairs, one that's been growing. But ironically, their 2016 lineup of prospective GOP presidential candidates reflects a post-Bush landscape, a time when Republicans have distanced themselves from the former president's hawkish foreign policy legacy but haven't settled on a substitute vision. This isn't 2008, when John McCain and Rudy Giuliani both ran, each trying to outflank the other over who was tougher on terrorism.

Yet, as fears of terrorism grow again, Republicans now find themselves struggling to find a leader made for the moment. On paper, they should be able to capitalize on the president's foreign policy woes. In reality, they've been looking more toward the past for inspiration—paging Dick Cheney—because their options for the future are limited.