The world is en fuego, with American interests at peril and President Obama's foreign policy failing to stem the chaos. The mood may be as brittle as it was in 2002, the first elections after the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks, but even though the country is definitely paying more attention to the world's problems as the economy improves at home, the midterm elections in America are just not being fought over foreign policy. This is unusual, but it isn't surprising: Neither party has a clue on foreign policy.
Democrats are divided about Obama's response to the Syrian civil war, the sudden metastasizing of ISIS in Iraq, and the civil war in Ukraine. Republicans call Obama's foreign policy a disaster, but aside from the consistent "bomb everyone" crowd, not even the party's libertarian wing agrees on an alternative course of action. Oh, and there's Ebola.
The post 9/11 foreign policy-political schematic has very much been overtaken by events. Aside from a broad consensus that America should not fight wars, and should withdraw from those it is fighting, voters are conflicted, even internally, about everything else. What role should America play in enforcing norms? What constitutes a national security threat?
But political parties can generally turn nothing into something. In this case, the GOP is running on the idea that Obama has created the chaos that voters feel, that his cowardly weakness and delusional belief in the powers of his own rhetoric have so unawed the world that no one believes America has any power anymore and therefore bad people are free to do bad things. Practically, they're asking this question: so Obama has been in charge for six years. What does America have to show for it?
It's a powerful argument, but anyone who is not already inclined to vote Republican understands that many of the problems Obama faces are distant but strong aftershocks of an aggressive, civilize-the-world post 9/11 Republican foreign policy, one that, of course, brought war to Iraq. There is no GOP alternative.
Unfortunately for the Democrats, Obama seems to be flailing in front of everyone. (The Democratic media elite has all but given up on the guy.) And George W. Bush is off painting somewhere. Obama hasn't managed to articulate and execute a foreign policy that his party can rally around, and certainly not one that connects at a visceral level to the basic American need to feel proud of their country.
So: in Arkansas, the Democratic incumbent who embraces ObamaCare insisted on pushing through a symbolic vote that would deny President Obama funds for Syria, because Arkansans don't want to be in Syria, and because Republican Rep. Tom Cotton (disclosure: a college classmate whom I knew slightly) is an Iraq war vet who wants to fight there.
In North Carolina, the Republican candidate tells voters that incumbent Democrat Kay Hagan is basically a handmaiden to the violence in the world because she's ratifying Obama's policies, whatever they are. Not so, Hagan insists, and she has the anti-Obama votes to prove it.
But these are side issues.
In Colorado and Louisiana, among other states, Republican challengers haven't figured out how to attack the president on the issue, and are instead flaying the incumbents over ObamaCare (which is working), and the economy (which is growing, kinda).
Some wags like to say that midterms don't usually turn on foreign policy. But two of the past three — 2002 and 2006 — certainly did. In those races, at least one of the two parties had something to say. In 2002, the GOP ran on scaring the hell out of everyone and by using tactics that morphed the faces of disabled veteran senators into Osama bin Laden's. In 2006, Democrats won seats based on voters' general antipathy to the Bush war record and their own pledge to work to withdraw troops from Iraq.
2014 should be a foreign policy election. But it isn't.