Foreign Policy: the Superior Metric

The time has come once again for America to choose its Legislator in Chief.

All the candidates for executive office hit the trail to explain how they will actually be spending their time personally doing the work of the entire legislative branch, reshaping public policy according to their respective visions, and otherwise accomplishing what no prior leaders have been able to.

As always, the boldest, most sweeping proposals are touted as depending on the force of personality and sheer will of the candidate, when in practice they depend on comprehensive bipartisan cooperation, disfiguring compromise, and the unlikely case that nothing more pressing or controversial interrupts the sausage-making process known as ‘legislation.’

The dense pack of Republican aspirants assured voters that no matter which of them takes the White House, giving ObamaCare the boot will be a top priority, clearing the books for a replacement healthcare reform with the GOP stamp of approval.

Then, right on the heels of the first debate, Hillary Clinton began touting her plan to lure Millennial voters by singlehandedly rewriting the rules of student loans and financial aid. Unsurprisingly, her approach to student aid looks remarkably similar to ObamaCare: $350 billion, with pressure on the states to work out the details of distributing federal monies to recipients, and a general move to increase federal scrutiny and influence over state institutions under a populist banner.

Republicans have established their disdain for Obama’s signature policy; no doubt a similar sentiment will be leveled at Clinton’s academic clone of the program. Yet they have also conveyed how, immediately following a (supposedly) complete repeal of ObamaCare, they will move to institute its most popular components -- roping in college-aged voters with a carry-over of the rule allowing students to remain on their parents’ plans up to age 25.

While it is clear the candidates across the political field are aiming en masse at the Baby Boomer voters (the largest, fastest-growing group of consumers for medical services) and youth voters (the main group taking out unaffordable student loans and meandering toward default), that is just about the only source of clarity in the dueling Plans to Save America.  What is missing is how these massive endeavors will make it through the vast bureaucracy.

Presidential candidates seem to love nothing more than making grand pronouncements on what domestic policy will look like under their leadership. This trend all but guarantees public disenchantment with the resulting administration, as program after program gets axed, ignored, or trimmed down to little more than a footnote under pre-existing legislation. As Obama supporters learned, Washington is more like a paperweight than an assembly line; inspiring slogans and far-reaching reforms may be the worst reason to support a candidate, no matter how attractive they sound at rallies.

The superior metric for judging presidential hopefuls is how they approach foreign policy, the primary responsibility of the chief executive.

Refreshingly, the Republican debates put foreign policy under unusually strong scrutiny – especially for the first debate of the contest. While far from comprehensive, discussions on broad national security, Iran, ISIS, the TPP, and immigration (something of a hybrid foreign and domestic policy issue) received at least some discussion among the candidates. Unlike advancing legislation, charting the course on international relations is directly under the purview of the president, making it harder to blame broken promises on partisan obstruction or bureaucratic lethargy.

This, more than any vapid assurances about working with Congress (while pretending not to be a Washington Insider), is what will really distinguish candidates over the coming months. While the last election saw economic issues dominate, 2016 has the chance to put international relations and defense policy back in its proper place: front and center.

Even in the fast-paced, global modern economy, it can be difficult to accurately attribute blame or credit to presidents or their policies. Obama blames Bush for leaving him skyrocketing unemployment, yet wants credit for bringing it back down again; the macroeconomic forces that truly matter tend to be greater than any single administration, however, and Obama’s claims are likely misplaced. Much harder to mistake is how a president responds to threats, engages allies, and directs America’s military.

Republicans seized the chance to analyze Obama’s performance here, and provided ample criticism. That they come to different conclusions about what would have worked better, or what is necessary going forward is less important than the fact that they are talking about these issues, and giving the campaigns substance.

If future moderators take any cues from the debates hosted by Fox, it should be on this: the candidates can and will talk foreign policy, given the opportunity. And given the trend toward integrating social media into debates, voters should take note as well -- it isn’t just up to the moderators to dictate what we ask of our candidates.