Presidential contenders often tout their foreign policy credentials. But that may matter little to voters.
In a speech Thursday, Hillary Clinton mocked and pilloried Donald Trump and charged that the real estate magnate is a dangerous threat who can’t be trusted with nuclear weapons. But history shows that in the past 40 years, the candidate with the robust foreign-policy portfolio often has lost to the one with the arguably thinner international résumé.
In San Diego, the former secretary of state unleashed a torrent of criticism against Trump, calling his ideas a “series of bizarre rants, personal feuds and outright lies.”
She declared him “temperamentally unfit to hold an office that requires knowledge, stability and immense responsibility.” And she warned that his election “would set back our standing in the world more than anything in recent memory.” She accused him of picking fights with U.S. allies while praising dictators and of basing his foreign policy credentials on his experience running the Miss Universe pageant in Russia.
“Imagine him deciding whether to send your spouses or children into battle,” she said. “Imagine if he had not just his Twitter account at his disposal when he’s angry, but America’s entire arsenal.”
But consider history: Gerald Ford had served more than two decades in the House of Representatives, had been vice president and then president – all giving him considerable experience in foreign policy and national security.
“Foreign policy and defense policy are difficult and complex issues,” Ford said at one debate. “We can debate methods; we can debate one decision or another. But there are two things which cannot be debated – experience and results.”
Yet he was defeated in 1976 by Jimmy Carter, a relatively unknown former one-term governor of Georgia with no international experience.
Or Carter himself, who ran for re-election four years later with plenty of foreign policy experience.
“I'm a much wiser and more experienced man than I was when I debated four years ago,” he said when he faced Ronald Reagan, a former governor of California.
Voters didn’t think much of his experience, though. Carter lost.
George H.W. Bush, who served in the House, as envoy to China, director of the CIA and then vice president, proved an exception in 1988, when he defeated Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, who had little international experience.
Four years later, however, Bush had won the Gulf War and presided over the end of the Cold War. And he couldn’t conceal his scorn for the lack of experience in Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton and his running mate, Sen. Al Gore of Tennessee.
“My dog Millie knows more about foreign affairs than these two bozos,” Bush said at a campaign rally in Michigan.
One reason for the losses: voters’ interests lie elsewhere.
“Generally, foreign policy experience has not been that important because people are more preoccupied by domestic issues,” said David Schultz, a political science professor at Hamline University in Minnesota who has studied the trend. “It’s much more checkbook, pocketbook, than foreign policy.”
The decline of the significance of foreign policy experience dates to the end of the Cold War, Schultz said. There have been wars and conflicts since then, but “not with the same perception of intensity,” he said.
In 2000, Gore, who’d traveled the world in his two terms as Clinton’s vice president, ran for the top job.
“Foreign policy is no game,” Gore said in his announcement speech. “The world today is complex and volatile in the extreme – more than it has ever been. You deserve a leader who has been tested in it – who knows how to protect America, and secure peace and freedom.”
But while he did win the popular vote, he lost the Electoral College and the election to George W. Bush, then the governor of Texas with no experience in foreign relations or national security.
And in 2008, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a former prisoner of war and longtime member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, was by far the more experienced candidate.
“I’ve been involved . . . in virtually every major national-security challenge we’ve faced in the last 20-some years,” McCain said in a September 2008 debate. “There are some advantages to experience, and knowledge, and judgment. And I honestly don’t believe that Sen. Obama has the knowledge or experience and has made the wrong judgments in a number of areas.”
He was defeated by Barack Obama, then a first-term senator.