What impact did foreign policy have on the presidential election? Not much, to judge by the Fox News exit poll showing that only 5 percent of voters considered that to be their top issue. That fact that of those 5 percent, 56 percent chose Obama and only 33 percent chose Romney leads some observers (e.g. Dan Drezner) to suggest that “the GOP has managed to squander an advantage in perceived foreign policy competency that it had owned for decades.” He has a point, although the situation is not as dire as the one statistic cited above would indicate. The exit poll also asked whether voters would trust each of the candidates to handle an international crisis—50 percent said yes for Romney and 57 percent for Obama.
That is perhaps a natural gap given that Obama has been president for four years and Romney had scant foreign policy experience. Considering his background in foreign policy (or lack thereof), Romney actually did well to reach the 50 percent threshold of credibility. That suggests that lack of confidence in his ability to handle foreign policy was not a major contributing factor to his defeat.
But Drezner does have a point—Republicans can’t simply take for granted the expectation, engendered since the Vietnam War when the Democratic Party turned dovish, that they are the natural party of national security. Republicans may see Obama as an apologizing peacenik, but that’s not how he comes across to most voters—for them his biggest selling point is that he’s the president who killed Osama bin Laden. There is a case to be made against Obama’s foreign policy, but Republicans didn’t really make it. Instead, Romney resorted to shorthand, such as accusing Obama of undertaking an “apology tour” which appealed only to true believers. Romney simply did not devote substantial time in his campaign to making his case on foreign policy grounds because he and his aides figured, perhaps rightly, that the election would be decided on the economy and that little else mattered.
But, whatever the polls say, future Republican presidential candidates would be well advised to undertake a real effort to explain their foreign policy positions to the country and to reestablish foreign policy credibility which, to some extent, has been frittered away by George W. Bush’s early mistakes in Iraq. It may be unfair to hold an entire party responsible for one president’s mistakes—and not to give Bush proper credit for rescuing the situation in Iraq with the surge—but Republicans will have to recognize that that’s the way it is. They cannot take national security policy for granted. Instead, they must work hard between now and 2016 to make a convincing case about why Obama has gone wrong and what a credible alternative is. That is something that Sen. Marco Rubio, who is already being talked about as a potential candidate in 2016, has done especially well. Other GOP hopefuls would be well advised to follow his example.