By Julian Hattem - 01-30-16 11:25 AM EST
More than any other year since the aftermath of 9/11, this November’s polling contest is shaping up to have a greater focus on terrorism, national security and foreign policy.
The dynamic was on full view during the Republican presidential debate this week, when mentions of “terror” outnumbered mentions of the economy by nearly three to one.
“It’s the No. 1 issue,” Sen, John McCain (R-Ariz.), the Republican Party’s 2008 presidential nominee, said this week.
The reason why is simple
“San Bernardino,” McCain claimed. “Two words.”
The attack in the California city was the deadliest violence by Islamic extremist on U.S. soil since 9/11, and prompted a wave of new focus on the issue — particularly among Republicans.
“The threat we face from ISIS is unprecedented,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said on Thursday evening, referring to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. “We must keep America safe from this threat.”
For political scientists, the focus seems natural.
“The economy is always the most important issue — except in times of war,” said Allan Lichtman, a political historian at American University.
“Many people believe we are at war, that the security of the nation is at stake that survival is at stake,” he added. “And that tends to overshadow all other issues.”
Economic indicators are largely positive, despite occasional indications of a looming downturn.
But concern about national security is at a high not seen since in the post-9/11 era, according to the Pew Research Center.
That makes national security a natural attack line for Republicans.
“Republicans are realizing that if the territory upon which they fight this election is domestic policy, they will likely lose,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York on Friday. “So they are going to be very interested in shifting the ground to issues related to national security and foreign policy.”
In the three headline GOP presidential debates the Dec. 2 attack in San Bernardino, which killed 14 people, the word “terror,” “terrorist” or something similar was mentioned 121 times. The word “economy” was mentioned only 29 times.
Republican front-runner Donald Trump has managed to use that focus to his benefit, said Princeton political history professor Julian Zelizer.
“I think Trump has capitalized on some of this, both a sense of fear and crisis, as well as the ways in which these foreign policy challenges undermine confidence in Democrats as leaders,” Zelizer said in an email.
Democrats have been less focused on the issue, due in large part to Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-Vt.) overwhelming focus on financial equality.
Yet front-runner Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of State, is likely to confront the issue head-on should she reach the general election.
In part, the post-primary contest is shaping up to be a referendum on Clinton’s tenure in the State Department, and on Obama’s national security legacy.
Clinton “has so much to answer for,” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) said during Thursday evening’s debate on Fox News. “She is completely unqualified to be commander in chief.”
But Democrats are not backing down.
At the presidential level as well as lower down the ticket, many Democrats appear ready to defend the Obama administration’s nuclear agreement with Iran, as well as the efforts to stop the bloodshed in Syria and secure the U.S. against extremists like ISIS.
For Ben Shnider, the national political director of liberal pro-Israel group J Street, the distinction echoes the political divide of a decade ago, when anxieties about invading Iraq were running high.
“It’s this contrast in a national security election between those who are advocating for war as a foreign policy intervention of first resort and are advocating indiscriminate bombing without thinking at all about its implications,” he said, “and this diplomacy-first approach.”
J Street plans on raising more than $3 million to oppose lawmakers who tried to uproot the nuclear accord — more than it has ever raised before.
In particular, the group is focusing on Sens. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), two purple-state lawmakers who are facing tough reelection fights in November.
“We see a singular opportunity to go on the offense and make those who have gotten in the way of this effective diplomacy have to answer for their opposition to it,” Shnider said.
“And in doing so, [we can] send a message come November that supporting this diplomacy first approach is good politics — it’s not just good policy.”