Foreign Policy Focus May Change the GOP Outlook

Photo by Gage Skidmore

Photo by Gage Skidmore

By Adam Weber.

As presidential campaigns begin to ramp up for the road to 2016, much remains uncertain.  The Republican Party, as in 2012, has yet to produce a clear frontrunner, with candidates continually switching positions in the polls.  One thing, however, has been made clear this past week:  Foreign policy is likely to be the key issue that decides the 2016 election.

Looking at the current political landscape, this should not come as much of a surprise.  After a long and painful recession, the US economy seems to finally be rebounding as the unemployment rate currently stands at 5.7 percent, two full percentage points lower than it did during the 2012 campaign.  The Dow Jones closed out 2014 with a rally and is up at over 18,000, and American consumers are feeling the benefits of record low oil prices. 

Foreign policy, on the other hand, is looking more uncertain than ever.  The growth of ISIL and its beheading of Americans have sent shockwaves throughout the United States.  To make matters worse, the Obama Administration and the Pentagon seem not to have the slightest idea of how to deal with the proliferating terrorist organization.  US-Israeli relations have hit rock bottom, mainly resulting from Israeli opposition to a lackluster effort by the US to roll back the Iranian nuclear program, as well as a not-so-secret enmity between President Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.  Finally, Vladimir Putin’s apparent desire to recreate the Warsaw Pact in Eastern Europe has restored Cold War concerns throughout the United States.

As a result, 2016 presidential hopefuls have spent their time traveling abroad, meeting with international leaders, bulking up their foreign policy advising staffs, and making speeches dedicated to these issues.  Last week, in a highly publicized address at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, GOP frontrunner Jeb Bush outlined his foreign policy platform and distanced himself from the policies of his brother by calling himself his “own man.”  While Bush’s speech was met with relatively positive feedback from the GOP base, many found his comments to be too general, with political rhetoric trumping actual substance.  In order for the GOP to be successful in 2016, their candidate must move beyond merely criticizing the Obama Administration and propose meaningful alternatives to deal with the challenges abroad.  Furthermore, although Jeb Bush’s “my own man” comment made for a great sound bite, it will require a much more specific explanation as 2016 approaches.  The ex-Florida Governor will be challenged to elaborate on how he plans to distinguish his administration from that of his brother.

Jeb Bush is not the only Republican presidential contender who will struggle in the foreign policy arena.  Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who surged in the polls over the last month, has said very little about foreign policy, as his scope of knowledge is more or less limited to the policies of the state of Wisconsin.  New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is not a much better position.  Although Christie has taken quite a few trips outside the country, those ventures have come back to bite him, as his lavish diplomatic vacations have made headlines.  On the other side of the spectrum, Senator Rand Paul has been one of the more outspoken candidates the topic of foreign policy.  However, his libertarian isolationism may not sit well with GOP base seeking to defeat terrorist organizations like ISIL and reclaim America’s prestige in the global community.

The man who may be in the best position to gain some ground in the polls is none other than Florida Senator Marco Rubio (above).  While Rubio has had a difficult time gaining traction, the shift toward foreign policy will only serve to boost his credibility as a GOP contender.  Unlike many of the governors in the field who have had little experience in foreign affairs, Rubio holds a position on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.  Keeping in line with the general Republican sentiment, Rubio is committed to a hard line approach of promoting American democratic ideals wherever they are needed.  The son of Cuban immigrants, Rubio is also perhaps the most well suited candidate to discuss US relations with Latin America, and specifically Cuba.  Most importantly, Rubio is one of the only GOP candidates to have done more than merely criticize the White House; he has introduced a variety of viable foreign policy proposals both in the Senate and on the campaign trail.

The shift toward foreign policy may provide the GOP with an interesting opportunity to reclaim the White House in 2016, given that they choose the right candidate.  Operating under the assumption that Hillary Clinton takes the Democratic nomination, Republicans may find themselves at a slight advantage heading into the general election.  While the former Secretary of State certainly has the résumé for the foreign policy debate, she will struggle to untie herself from the unpopular Obama Administration.  Despite her numerous attempts to do so, many Americans continue to associate Hillary with Obama’s infamous “leading from behind” tactics.  If the GOP wants to capitalize on this opportunity, it is essential that they choose wisely heading into 2016.


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