If there is one piece of conventional wisdom that defines the 2012 campaign cycle thus far it is that well-worn nugget from the 1992 race, "It's the economy, stupid." In a year in which unemployment will remain high and economic growth will continue to stagnate, foreign policy and national security is assumed to be low down on the list of voter concerns.
Not so fast. Foreign policy and national security -- though likely not the decisive issue -- has the potential to play an important role in the 2012 race. While voters may not cast a ballot because they're overjoyed with Obama toppling Muammar al-Qaddafi, getting out of Iraq, or killing Osama bin Laden, foreign policy can help to shape the narrative of the 2012 race and the images of the two candidates. Passing the commander-in-chief test, especially for a GOP field as weak on foreign policy as it is, could make more of a difference this year than it has in decades. And in a cycle in which a Democratic president has perhaps the shiniest collection of foreign policy accomplishments in decades, it might be a bit too soon to write off foreign policy and national security altogether.
To be sure, rare is the presidential election in which foreign policy and national security are the dominant issues. But it does happen. In 2004, the first presidential campaign held after 9/11, George W. Bush's edge on national security -- combined with an edge on so-called cultural issues -- gave him a decisive advantage. Similarly, in 1968, issues of war and peace were crucial as Lyndon Johnson was forced to withdraw largely because of dissension in his own ranks over the war in Vietnam.
The norm, however, is that foreign policy and national security issues affect general elections along the margins. They are central far less in their policy elements and more in how they build an image or specific narrative around a candidate. How presidential aspirants are perceived on foreign policy and national security can become something of a Rorschach test for how they are perceived as presidential timber (think: Dukakis in the tank). As Alex Cole, a political communication strategist, said to me, "people look at a leader in their totality; if they see them taking decisive action in one area it speaks to their larger character."
In the 1960 election, John F. Kennedy hammered Richard Nixon and the Eisenhower administration over its lack of toughness in confronting the threat from the Soviet Union. While he didn't win because of this, Kennedy's focus on national security helped to minimize his vulnerability as the less-experienced candidate -- and actually put Nixon on the defensive in the one area where he should have had a clear advantage. In 1964 and 1972, Barry Goldwater and George McGovern were each hurt by their views on national security. Goldwater for being too hawkish; McGovern for being too dovish. And in 1980, Jimmy Carter's problem was certainly the economy; but it was also, if not even more so, his dismal foreign policy performance (particularly in light of the Iranian hostage crisis).