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Why the Republicans Won't Talk About Foreign Policy

At an off-the-record briefing for a conservative think tank this week, a top Republican pollster explained to a frustrated audience why Republican candidates won't talk about foreign policy. A quarter of Americans, the pollster explained, have lost their jobs in the past year, or have a family member who has lost a job. In the worst-hit cities the proportion is much higher, peaking at 39% in Las Vegas. When you're five paychecks away from bankruptcy -- that's the median position of American workers -- and terrified about losing employment, you don't want to hear about foreign policy. It's fine to kill Bin Laden or Gaddafi, but then Americans would like to see our troops come home. They are tired of the Iraq war. It's not that it hurts Republicans to talk about foreign policy, but their pollsters are telling them that people just don't care.

I respect the pollster in question, but I think he's wrong. The electorate doesn't always know what it wants to hear, until it hears it, and the job of political leadership is to lead. My old mentor in Republican politics, the late supply-side pundit Jude Wanniski, liked to say that the electorate was like a diamond in the rough: there is always an optimal way to cut the diamond, and a political leader has to know just where to place the chisel.

During the past month I've been on the talk radio circuit, and if this grass-roots medium is any reflection of the American mood, foreign policy is very much on the minds of voters, particularly Republican primary voters. Talk radio isn't a bad focus group. It's not a scientific sample, and I have no pretensions to political forecasting. But Americans are not so insular that they ignore the threat of terrorism under the sponsorship of a nuclear-armed Iran. And Israel's security is a matter close to the hearts of conservative voters, especially (but not only) the evangelicals, who comprise more than a quarter of all registered voters.

The pollsters' caution that "it's the economy stupid" is not entirely misguided -- economics clearly is the biggest issue in the election -- but Republican reticence on foreign policy can't be blamed entirely on what the candidates hear from focus groups. In the previous thread  on bombing Iran, one poster -- clearly a person very well informed about the workings of the national security establishment -- asked why it is that the establishment rejected military action against Iran so vehemently. I referred him to an April 2010 essay for Tablet magazine in which I argued that the security establishment had staked its reputation on stabilizing Iraq, and worried that an attack on Iran would turn the region into a chaotic mess, just as Admiral Mullen warned in his 2009 Charlie Rose interview.