During a weekend television appearance, Howard Dean called on Republicans to continue to make foreign policy a central theme of the 2016 campaign, asserting that Democrats will reap the benefits.
"I hope it does become a foreign policy election. There's nobody more capable in this country than Hillary Clinton in terms of foreign policy. So if it's a foreign policy election, we win," said the former Vermont governor and Democratic presidential candidate
Saturday during a segment on MSNBC's "Up With Steve Kornacki."
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"If the Republicans want to make this about foreign policy, bring it on. Because they don't have a single candidate that knows very much about foreign policy, and we have the person who probably knows more about foreign policy than anybody else in America who is qualified to run for president," he added.
While Dean is confident a foreign focus will help a potential Hillary Clinton campaign and Democrats in general, a report released earlier this month by Third Way
, a center-left think tank, makes the case that national security has re-emerged as a vulnerability for Democrats.
"The public opinion gap between Republicans and Democrats on national security has existed to varying degrees for decades. But it is larger now than it was even just after 9/11," states the report authored by analysts Ben Freeman and Michelle Diggles.
Whether the national security gap will have an impact in 2016 remains hard to judge, but they argue that it played a role in the 2014 midterm elections.
While it was not the decisive issue, they say that "the partisan gap on national security is much larger than the partisan gap on the economy. And our analysis shows that the huge security gap did have an impact on the outcome in 2014."
The connection between President Barack Obama's ratings on foreign policy
and his overall approval was noted by Harry Enten of FiveThirtyEight's "Data Lab" in June 2014.
"For more than a year, Americans' perceptions of Obama on foreign policy have been a drag on his popularity. Correlation is not causation, but it’s hard not to conclude that the foreign policy controversies of the past year and a half have dented Obama’s appeal. If they hadn’t, we’d expect that, at worst, his foreign policy approval rating to track with his overall approval," Enten wrote.
If Enten's argument holds true, that could spell trouble for Democrats in 2016 as more than half of Americans hold an unfavorable view of President Barack Obama's handling of the Islamic State (ISIS), according to a recent CNN/ORC survey.
The percentage of voters who disapprove of Obama's policy toward fighting ISIS has increased from 49 percent in September to 57 percent in the poll conducted Feb. 12-15.
The negative view of the president's foreign policy is not limited to combating the radical Islamist terror group, with 57 percent voicing disapproval of his handling of foreign affairs more broadly, and 54 percent unhappy with his record on terrorism.
Obama even fares poorly among Democrats, with 46 percent saying that the battle against
ISIS is not going well.
However, the Third Way report says Hillary Clinton may not necessarily be dragged down by Obama in 2016, particularly among Independent voters.
"[Independent voters] view former President Bush as too proactive and aggressive and President Obama as too reactive and deliberative. Hillary Clinton may be the one to get it just right.
"Participants describe the former Secretary of State as 'more experienced,' 'quicker to make decisions,' and more confident than President Obama," the analysts wrote. "And compared to Democrats overall, Secretary Clinton is viewed as more hawkish and authoritative, but, as one woman put it, 'not aggressive. She exhibits strength without being pushy.'"
Much may depend on how tied the former secretary of state is to Obama, and how much importance Americans place on foreign policy leading up to the presidential election, which is growing as a "priority," according to the Pew Research Center's
annual policy priorities survey.
According to the survey released in January, more Americans (76 percent) rate defending the U.S. against terrorism as their top priority than those who view the economy as the top priority (75 percent).
In January 2013, 41 percent said strengthening the military was a top policy priority, compared with 52 percent in the most recent survey.
Questions about the Obama's credibility on foreign affairs not only have the potential to hurt Democrats politically, but may endanger the administration's efforts to convince Congress and the American people of the soundness of his policy toward Iran.
Noting his "unfulfilled assurances" on a series of foreign undertakings — his approach to dealing with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, to fostering a democratic movement in Libya, and using sanctions to counter the aggressive actions of Russian President Vladimir Putin — The Washington Post's Fred Hiatt
contends Obama's credibility gap could imperil his efforts on Iran.
"This litany of unfulfilled assurances is less a case of Nixonian deception than a product of wishful thinking and stubborn adherence to policies after they have failed. But inevitably it will affect how people hear Obama’s promises on Iran, as will his overall foreign policy record," writes Hiatt.
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