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The Role of Foreign Policy in the 2004 Election
ouncil on Foreign Relations panel discussion

“Terrorism is the prism through which the public sees George Bush,” said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press on January 14 at a meeting at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Kohut joined Edward Rollins, chairman of the Rollins Strategy Group and campaign advisor to former President Ronald Reagan, and Douglas E. Schoen, a Democratic pollster and campaign advisor to former President Bill Clinton, in discussing the role of foreign policy in the 2004 presidential election.

Despite the various political opinions expressed by the panelists, all agreed that foreign policy, specifically the war on terrorism, will undoubtedly play a crucial role in the 2004 elections. Drawing on a recent Pew poll, Kohut
noted that the war on terror is as high a priority to the American people as the economy this election year. This is a significant finding, according to Kohut, who said that in the 2000 election, foreign affairs had little, if any, importance to the average American voter.

But the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11, 2001, and President Bush’s response to those attacks made foreign policy an important issue to the public, the panelists said. “People can’t underestimate Bush again,” Rollins added. “They see him as a leader.”

Foreign affairs will also play a crucial role in the Democratic primaries. According to Rollins, former Vermont Governor Howard Dean has had the ability as a front runner to shift the Democrats’ conversation from what he calls the “bread and butter” issues such as the environment and the deficit, to foreign policy issues such as the war in Iraq.

Following are selected questions asked to the panel of experts by moderator James Lindsay, vice president of the Council on Foreign Relations, about the role of foreign policy in the 2004 election.

Lindsay: How much more prominent are foreign policy issues this election year?

Kohut: The most important thing to recognize is that while people’s concerns about terrorism are not as pressing as they were a year ago or two years ago right after the [9-11] attacks, they are still there, and the war on terrorism and protecting the country against terrorism is as high as any national priority. In fact, we are going to release a poll tomorrow where we ask people to rate 21 priorities.Number one is fixing the economy. Number two is protecting the country against terrorism. And they are actually tied. The president’s approval ratings on terrorism have anchored his overall approval ratings, particularly when times have gotten tough for him, when he sunk to 50 percent in the fall of 2003. He was always at 65 and 60 percent on terrorism, and that’s good for him at this point.

In fact, if you look at the polls, and if you look at history, foreign policy is an advantage to the Bush side in two very significant ways. One, an incumbent president always has an advantage because of the stature gap, and whoever the Democrat is, he or she is going to have to measure up, and that’s a challenge. Secondly, Republicans do better typically— unless things are going very badly— on foreign policy—than Democrats. And so that’s two points for Bush.

The other issue, however, that may affect the administration to a certain extent is the way things are going in Iraq. Nonetheless, people have stuck with the idea that this was the right thing to do, even though they have many doubts about the way it was done and the timing of it. The Democrats’ opportunity is to exploit those doubts if that situation continues to get worse.

Lindsay: Is Bush vulnerable on foreign policy? If he does have vulnerability, is it simply Iraq, or could it tie into bigger issues?

Rollins: Free elections are always about the incumbent president, and obviously when the country is looking for an alternative, as they were with President Jimmy Carter in ‘80 and they were with President George H.W. Bush in ‘92, someone can rise out of the pack and become a very significant alternative. I think President Bush today has the most important presidential quality you can have. People can’t underestimate him again. They see him as a leader. They see him certainly as someone who has led us into a war. He holds the respect of the military. Obviously he led his party into a midterm election in which they picked up seats, which was unprecedented. Bush clearly has his own political base that is very solid. There are no Republican defectors. There’s no challenge. And I think that’s a very, very good place to be.

Kohut: The odds favor Bush. There’s no question about it. But there are always wild cards. Another attack is a wild card. A change of mind on the part of the American public about how much of a terrorist threat we really face, in an environment where jobs don’t surface, and the domestic agenda takes supremacy, I would really argue against. I think that on balance you are probably right, but you can’t rule it out.

Lindsay: The question then becomes for a Democratic candidate: What is your goal on foreign affairs? Are you trying to neutralize the president’s advantage there? Are you trying to redefine it? Are you trying to recast the elections?

Schoen: I think there are probably three things the Democrats should try to do. The first thing you try to do is neutralize the nation. I think you want to do that in a couple of ways. First, you want to increasingly raise doubts about the success of the enterprise. And I think the polling that we’ve seen suggests that there’s real doubt about the way Bush has conducted himself in the international context — the failure to have a multilateral dimension, consult the U.N.—has again raised real doubts. So I think you can begin to
undermine the president on that level, and also suggest that the venture in Iraq, however good an idea it might have been, has not been prosecuted successfully—or as successfully as it might have been. I’m not sure you are going to succeed in winning the issue, but if you neutralize it, you’re way ahead of the game.

Lindsay: Does foreign policy as an issue particularly resonate one way or the other with different groups on gender basis or income basis or regional basis?

Kohut: I was just looking at our survey that we’re going to release tomorrow, and it has an extraordinary thing in it for Bush and the Republicans. And the fact of the matter is that two very important groups who have been on the Democratic side in most national elections are now giving higher priority than their corresponding demographic groups to strengthening the U.S. military. Women are now giving strengthening the military a higher rating than men. Older voters are giving strengthening the military a higher rating than younger people. And those have been two core Democratic constituencies. And that’s a very, very big problem for the Democrats.


CAMPAIGN 2004: Foreign Policy in the Presidential Election