Foreign Policy At The GOP Debate: Lots Of Sound Bites, Little Substance

If you're interested in knowing how the candidates would handle a foreign policy crisis, last night's debate was mostly unhelpful.

Jonathan Bernstein complains that there wasn’t much in the way of foreign policy substance at the GOP debate last night:

Are Republicans really going to let their candidates avoid making any choices on foreign policy?

It’s hard to remember sometimes during the debates, with their prepared attacks and punch lines and all, that choosing a presidential candidate is actually very serious business for a political party. If it’s working properly, the process normally forces candidates to make policy commitments on a wide range of issues. On those areas where there is a policy consensus, candidates are forced to hew to that consensus — think of the Democrats in 2008 on health care, when each of the leading candidates converged on nearly the same plan. And on those issues where there are serious disagreements within the party, the nomination process allows the party to contest those disagreements, or to try to find compromises. It’s important work.

And it’s work that just doesn’t seem to be happening very much this time around for the Republicans, especially on foreign policy.

I’ve watched Mitt Romney debate six times now, and Rick Perry has been there three times, and I have absolutely no idea whatsoever about what either of the frontrunners thinks about foreign policy and national security. Romney, it seems, is dead set against the entirely mythical Obama policy of apologizing for America, but doesn’t really have anything more to say. And Perry doesn’t even have that much.

The people who have a lot at stake here are Republicans, especially those who really care about these issues. So the question is: what are they going to do about it

It’s a fair point. After all, while it’s true that the major concern in the mind of voters now, and likely on Election Day 2012, is job and the economy, the one area where a President actually has the most authority to act without much worry of Congressional opposition or intervention is foreign policy and the application and use of military force. It would be helpful to know what these candidates actually think about these subject, and what they know about the world, before one of them is possibly given an immense amount of power to influence not just the United States, but the entire world. Instead, we get questions about Gardisil and evolution which, while important on some level, are far less important than the fact that these people are running for a job that allows puts them in charge of the most powerful military in the world.

On some level, this is the fault of debate moderators that don’t ask the right kind of questions and a format that demands candidates keep their answers limited to one or two minutes. To put it mildly, there are very few issues in the world that can be reduced to a short question and a quick answer. As a result, all we get are sound bites designed to garner applause and repetition of the same tired slogans over and over again. America will “always stand up to terror” or “stand by our ally Israel.” You get the idea. They’re poll-tested and adviser-approved, and they are decidedly unhelpful in learning anything about what the candidate thinks about these issues or how they’d handle a complex foreign policy problem they might encounter if elected. Anyone who tunes into a Presidential debate looking for something like that will be inevitably disappointed.

Last night’s foreign policy exchanges were predictable and mostly full of meaningless sound bytes. The one clip that is standing out today is Rick Perry’s disastrous response to a question about Pakistan, but there was another part of the debate where we actually saw someone talk about these issues in the way they ought to be talked about. That person’s name is Jon Huntsman:

While Santorum’s sound bites proved more popular with the crowd, Huntsman response displayed the kind of well thought out answer that someone who has actually thought about these issues would give. It’s not entirely surprising, of course, given that Huntsman has served as U.S. Ambassador to Singapore under the first President Bush, Deputy Trade Representative under the second President Bush, and, of course, Ambassador to China under President Obama.  Experience aside, though, it was refreshing to actually see someone approach these issues intelligently in a debate rather than just trying to score a sound byte that would end up on cable news the next morning.

If I had my way, these pre-primary debates would be like the Presidential debates. Instead of just asking one or two questions, we should have an entire debate focused on foreign policy issues (and the same for the economy and other domestic issues). That, along with a format that requires the candidates to do more than just give answers that can be condensed into one or two sentences would go a long way toward helping voters figure out if any of these candidates can be trusted with the ultimate power.

FILED UNDER: 2012 Election, National Security, US Politics, , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. reid says:

    Call me cynical, but most of these people seem like lazy, modestly intelligent politicians and nothing else. They’ll say and do what their advisers tell them it takes to win, but they have no interest in learning about economics, foreign policy, history, science, etc. The D+ students are taking over.

  2. James Joyner says:

    @reid: This has been true as long as I can remember, especially in the primaries. Democrats and Republicans alike tend to nominate governors, who really have no foreign policy experience.

  3. James Joyner says:

    My policy of skipping these debates continues to be rewarded. There are just too many people in them right now and we’re likely to get nothing but banal pandering.

  4. @James Joyner:

    This is true 8 or 9 people on the stage makes anything other than short answers impossible. But even when you get down to the Presidential debate level, they tend to be so tightly scripted and controlled that the possibility for real substance isn’t really there. Of course, that’s exactly what the campaigns want.

  5. reid says:

    @James Joyner: My complaint was much broader than just complaining about lack of foreign policy experience. As time goes on, it seems like more and more of our leaders in government are lazy and dumb. Seems like there was once a time when intelligence and hard work were respected and expected. Now we take fools like Perry, Palin, and Bachman (and many of the others up there) seriously. They just need to look, sound, and pander the best to win. This is especially bad in the GOP.

    I’m just venting….

  6. James Joyner says:

    @reid: There’s not much question that we’ve dumbed the debates down even in my memory. Going back to even the 1980 or 1988 primary you can see how much smarter they were. I don’t know if the candidates are that much dumber or if they’ve just taken pandering to the yahoos to a new level.

  7. mattb says:

    @James Joyner:
    I suspect it’s a bit of both. I also tend to think its more to do with the televised format and the frequency of the debates and the overall length of the primary process.

    Seriously… how many debates have we had and the election is more than a year away?!

    Personally, I think it would be far more productive to pretty much kill the rest of the debates until there are no more than three people on that stage. But I suspect that would be ratings death (especially if they get into longer format answers).

  8. mattb says:

    @James Joyner:
    One other note… if Romney gets the nod, I actually think there could be a chance for raising the bar of the Presidential debates (for those who are not interested in sound bites). It would be the first time in a while where two people who have a tendency to be policy wonks would be occupying the same stage.

  9. On Rick Perry’s comments about India, when did India ever want to buy F-16s? I have never heard them show any interest in American military equipment, they mainly stick to Russian and Chinese equipment.