If there was any doubt that the Democrats have claimed the political upper hand on foreign-policy and national-security issues, the conventions of the last two weeks have erased it. The GOP barely mentioned the world beyond America’s borders in Tampa, but the Democrats aggressively defended President Obama’s foreign-policy record in Charlotte. Even more tellingly, they scarcely felt the need to engage the Republicans on many of the issues, and instead simply dismissed some of Mitt Romney’s missteps with jokes and one-liners.
The best example was John Kerry’s address, which at times felt like it belonged more at the Friars Club than a political convention. On Afghanistan, he quipped, “It isn’t fair to say Mitt Romney doesn’t have a position on Afghanistan. He has every position.” He said Romney “talks like he’s only seen Russia by watching Rocky IV.” Even Obama got in on the act, mocking Romney’s overseas trip with the line, “You might not be ready for diplomacy with Beijing if you can't visit the Olympics without insulting our closest ally.”
As Fred Kaplan noted at Slate, the contrast with previous campaigns could not have been starker. Naturally, Obama’s order to take out Osama bin Laden, which the Democrats celebrated repeatedly, had quite a bit to do with this. But, as Kaplan wrote, Democrats “feel so assured in their new role as guardians of national defense” that they were also willing to highlight the withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan and the New START agreement with Russia. They are confident that they have seized the broad political center on national security (as Les Gelb argued in TNI), and they’re not worried that stressing these issues will make them appear weak.
An op-ed written earlier this week by four former GOP secretaries of state reinforces this point. In the Washington Times, Condoleezza Rice, James Baker, George Shultz and Henry Kissinger endorsed Romney for president. Interestingly, their piece was titled “Romney for recovery” and hinged almost entirely on economic arguments. They contend that Romney is better positioned to lead an economic recovery than Obama, which is necessary for America to maintain its military power and influence abroad. But they do not make a single direct criticism of Obama’s foreign policy. The fact that even these distinguished statesmen make their case for Romney this way shows how much ground the GOP has implicitly ceded.
Of course, this does not mean that there aren’t strong critiques of the administration’s foreign policy to be made—only that leading Republicans are not currently making them. Given the truly dismal state of the economy, this may be politically smart. But it’s worth noting what a dramatic reversal this is from only a few short years ago.