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.