At the moment his staff hit publish on a new pre-presidential campaign website, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham had distinguished himself from the rest of the already unwieldy Republican 2016 field. “Security Through Strength,” was the name of his new group, with a military-style combat unit shield as its logo.
Foreign policy would be Graham’s focus, and his tack would be unmistakable: He would be the candidate who could update Ronald Reagan’s Cold War vision of “Peace Through Strength” for the ongoing battle against radical Islam. Visitors had to read a couple hundred words of filler before any mention of domestic policy appeared. “Graham is also a leader in cutting spending,” the copy reads. Also, as if it were an afterthought.
As a political strategy, this was a bold move, given that most of his challengers have been focused their rhetorical fire on the cause du jour, the economic frustrations of the struggling American middle class. But then presidential campaigns rarely end where they begin, as Graham’s biggest backer, Arizona Sen. John McCain learned well in his 2008 race. That contest began squarely in McCain’s wheelhouse, as a foreign policy debate over the Iraq War. But it ended with an economic crises that McCain was not equipped to handle. “The issue of economics is not something I've understood as well as I should,” he was on record admitting in 2007.
There is a real potential for 2016 to follow the same pattern in reverse. Domestically, the economy remains stuck in neutral for most Americans, but gas prices are dropping, the labor market is firming, and the ground may be set for incomes begin to rise again. Overseas, however, the world is as tumultuous as it has been in a decade, with terrorist attacks in Europe, a virtual proxy war bubbling up between NATO and Russia in Ukraine, tense nuclear negotiations with Iran and Sunni radicals redrawing national boundaries in the Middle East.
In this environment, Graham stands relatively alone in clearly presenting a foreign policy vision. “I don't think we're anywhere close to the point where we need to be,” former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton told TIME. Bolton is contemplating a run for president to keep foreign policy in the national conversation. “Having two paragraphs in a stump speech should not be confused with having a foreign policy,” he said.
Some would-be candidates have talked about foreign policy more than others. On Sunday evening at a panel hosted by a group affiliated with the Koch brothers, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who sits on the Foreign Relations committee, had as much criticism for the governors as he had for ideological rival Sen. Rand Paul, who has presented a more modest vision of U.S. power abroad. “Taking a trip to some foreign city for two days does not make you Henry Kissinger,” Rubio said, in apparent reference to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who was at the Koch event and is planning a trip to the United Kingdom next month.
Similarly, Mitt Romney has made clear that foreign policy will be a central theme of his third run, should he choose to continue with the race. “The President’s dismissal of real global threats in his State of the Union address was naive at best and deceptive at worst,” Romney said Wednesday, in a speech before students in Mississippi.
But other Republicans, especially the deep bench of governors with White House ambitions, have yet to find their footing. Instead of offering a vision, they have been focused on schooling themselves in the arts of international trade craft.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has been receiving briefings by a team including Bob Zoellick, the former president of the World Bank and U.S. Trade Representative, and Brian Hook, a former assistant secretary of state and Romney campaign advisor. Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry has been soliciting briefings from foreign and domestic policy experts for more than a year to study up for a second campaign. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal has co-authored a hawkish foreign policy white paper last year with former Sen. Jim Talent. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who launched his political organization this week, is expected to start receiving policy briefings in the next several weeks, with Marc Thiessen, the American Enterprise Institute scholar—and co-author of Walker’s book—expected to play a key role.
The former Florida Governor, Jeb Bush, supported his brother’s foreign policy while in office, but has rarely spoken out on more recent threats. Last month he called for strengthening, rather than weakening, the U.S. embargo on Cuba, for instance. It is not clear whether he has started formal briefings, but he has been reaching out to an array of experts in recent weeks, according to a person familiar with the calls.
Some Senate aides have pointed out that the state leaders could find themselves at a steep disadvantage in the general election. “We need someone who can credibly push back against Hillary Clinton’s failed record,” said an aide to one Senator eyeing the White House. “And the governors can’t do that.”
But governors may also have an advantage, not having their foreign policy so clearly defined before they run. Paul has been largely defined as an isolationist, while Rubio and Graham are affiliated with neo-conservatives, and Ted Cruz is has taken a hawkish line on many issues but favors budget cuts to defense programs.
“We don’t know very much of the foreign policy viewpoints of Jeb, Christie, and Walker,” said a veteran Republican policy aide to presidential candidates. “They have an opportunity to formulate and articulate the worldview that makes the most sense given time and space.”
That strategy works better if no one is forcing foreign policy questions into the debate at this early point in the cycle. In other words, a good day for Lindsey Graham, who enjoys easy access to the national press off the Senate floor, may be a bad one for many of his rivals in the months to come.