The Democrats' ISIS Dilemma

Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton are both speaking about the terror group Thursday, but neither really wants to—each for very different reasons.

Charlie Neibergall / AP

The debate about ISIS since the Paris attacks has largely been driven by Republicans. Republican governors (as well as one Democrat) have asked the Obama administration not to send refugees to their states, while national Republicans have called on the president to end refugee resettlement altogether. Meanwhile, hawkish GOP candidates have put forth military plans. Jeb Bush on Wednesday called for a ground force in Syria to defeat ISIS and end the civil war there. Senator Lindsey Graham somewhat grandiosely announced, “I’m going to introduce an authorization to use Military Force against ISIL that is not limited by Time, Geography or Means.” Democrats have been mostly reactive: They know they’re (generally) against turning away refugees, and against ground troops. But what are they for?

The two leading Democratic candidates will have a chance to seize the initiative on Thursday. At 10:30 a.m., Clinton is delivering a speech in New York on how to defeat ISIS. Later that day, at 2 p.m.Bernie Sanders is delivering a long-anticipated speech at Georgetown University on what “Democratic Socialism” is, but his campaign indicated he would also discuss “how the world community can defeat the Islamic State.”

They don’t have much choice but to address ISIS: It’s the topic du jour. But there are also good reasons they’ve been reluctant. Watching Republican debates, you get the sense that the candidates want to turn any question about domestic policy into a terrorism answer. With the Democrats, it’s the reverse. Just take Sanders’s opening statement at Saturday’s debate, in which he pivoted in his third sentence:

Well, John, let me concur with you and with all Americans who are shocked and disgusted by what we saw in Paris yesterday. Together, leading the world this country will rid our planet of this barbarous organization called ISIS. I'm running for president because as I go around this nation I talk to a lotta people. And what I hear is people concerned that the economy we have is a rigged economy.

The positive incentive to turn toward domestic issues is clear. If the economy is good, most forecasting models suggest it will help Democrats in 2016. They’d much rather talk about that. But the negative incentives for each of the two leading candidates to try to deflect the conversation are compelling, too.

First, start with Sanders. The Vermont senator’s campaign was widely reported to be upset when CBS decided, in the wake of the Paris attacks, to switch the focus of the debate to foreign policy. (Aides downplayed the disagreement.) Sanders has spent months—or really, decades—perfecting a message about how the American economy is rigged to benefit the rich, and how the United States needs to increase taxes on the wealthy, improve social services, and safeguard civil liberties. It’s a message that has resonated with a sizable portion of the electorate.

But that message of redistribution doesn’t directly offer any indication of how to approach a transnational terrorist group with a radical religious ideology—Marx didn’t say much about foreign policy, and radical anti-imperialism is not a winning strategy in a U.S. presidential election. Throughout his career, Sanders has taken a fairly standard progressive line on foreign policy. He opposed the war in Iraq, but voted in favor of American interventions in the Balkans and in Afghanistan, following September 11. (Some lefties look at his record as dangerously hawkish, in fact.) He can say he’s against ground troops, but what is he for? Any discussion of these questions takes him away from both his comfort zone and his core political causes.

Clinton’s problem is the opposite: She’s been extremely involved in American foreign policy. This has not turned out to be the asset she clearly hoped it would be. During the 2008 Democratic primary, her vote in favor of the Iraq war played an important role in her loss to Barack Obama, but this cycle was supposed to be different. Now, though, renewed discussion of sending American troops into the Fertile Crescent serves as an unpleasant reminder of that episode. Meanwhile, her later career as secretary of state isn’t looking like the crowning achievement she would like. She has struggled to name a top achievement of her tenure, and been bedeviled by ongoing investigations into her email system while secretary.

Talking about ISIS inevitably raises uncomfortable questions about the Obama administration's handling of the group while she was the nation’s top foreign-policy official. As John Dickerson asked her at the Democratic debate, “So you've got prescriptions for the future. But how do we know if those prescriptions are any good if you missed it in the past?” Her answer was steady: The U.S. was restricted by an agreement with Iraq negotiated by President Bush; and she had suggested more aid for moderate rebels. Finally, she said, “But I don't think that the United States has the bulk of the responsibility. I really put that on Assad and on the Iraqis and on the region itself.”

All of that may be true, but voters are unlikely to find it a very satisfying answer. There is widespread consensus that President Obama’s approach to ISIS is not adequate or successful. Clinton can offer good reasons why other options are no better, but she has not yet articulated a clear vision for what should be done. Making matters worse is the pinch of public opinion; in a poll released Monday, Americans said they wanted the U.S. to do more to deal with ISIS, but they also didn’t want a ground invasion.

On Thursday, both Sanders and Clinton will take a shot at articulating that positive vision for what to do—without, presumably, deploying ground troops. But it’s a good bet that both would rather be talking about something else.