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From the Global Affairs Desk in North Beach
No presidential candidate runs on foreign policy

by Matt McFetridge

I spent election night cruising around San Francisco Bay on President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “floating White House,” the USS Potomac. Although he used the yacht for a clandestine rendezvous with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill during World War II, there was nothing secret this night, with a buffet, two open bars, and even an FDR look-a-like. We boarded next to another boat full of the angry people who adore the snarling Michael Savage; there were few happy campers on that yacht, but the opposite was true on the USS Potomac. It was a good party, and when we saw traditional red states like Indiana and North Carolina go blue, we all knew the senator from Illinois was headed to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

FDRFDR didn’t have to deal with red and blue states, yet generally speaking, he and the president-elect face some similar problems – an economy in shambles and a two-front war. But, while FDR faced a depression and fascism, Obama faces a global recession and a worldwide terror threat. Although these are different problems and from different times, Stanford journalism professor and Pulitzer Prize-winning former New York Times foreign policy correspondent Joel Brinkley says there is a constant: “A number of verities have remained constant since WW II, among them that the U.S. is the pre-eminent power in the free world – and now the entire world. That places a singular responsibility on the American president that no other head of state holds.”

American presidents are defined by their foreign policy, yet rarely does a presidential candidate run on global issues in the general election. Reporters on the White House beat constantly refer to a sitting president as the “leader of the free world” for a reason.

I’ve covered just about every national campaign since 1984, and time after time, domestic issues, not foreign policy, usually drive presidential races. At first, Campaign ’08 looked to be different; according to Brinkley, “Iraq was front-burner in the early primaries, but the economy will always trump everything else when it turns sour.”

“It’s the economy, stupid” was the mantra and issue that got Bill Clinton to the White House in 1992. In 2000, Governor George Bush’s stump speech that I saw in Iowa and New Hampshire had a strong “no nation-building plank,” a not-so-veiled reference to Clinton’s failure in Somalia (remember Blackhawk Down?), but the 2003 Iraq invasion changed that tune says the former New York Times scribe. “As for George Bush’s no nation-building pledge, it went the way of ‘compassionate conservatism,’ another election-campaign pledge. In truth, he and his aides believed Iraq would be a cakewalk. They believed they would be able to pull out in a few months. When that proved not to be true, they were left with no choice but to build a nation.”

Karl Rove diverted attention from the Iraq debacle in 2004 with his divisive rallying cry of “God, guns and gays” that awakened the sleeping giant of the angry white man, who wanted to “stay the course” with President George W. Bush on both domestic issues and Iraq/Afghanistan. Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry’s inept campaign was run by two-time loser Bob Shrum (Al Gore’s campaign manager in 2000), who didn’t respond to Rove’s sleazy attacks. I’ve covered combat in three continents, and what I found extremely disgusting were the Swift Boat attacks on Kerry’s Vietnam War record and valor under fire. Kerry was a legitimate combat hero, winning a Purple Heart and a Silver Star. Shrum’s addiction to the high road to not respond to Rove’s low blows demonized the Massachusetts senator as weak to the electorate.

George W. Bush was falling off a barstool stateside in the Air National Guard while Kerry was actively engaging the Viet Cong on Navy patrol boats known as Swift Boats in the Mekong Delta. Dick Cheney had several deferments to avoid military service in Vietnam, yet the Kerry campaign wouldn’t fight back and point out his opponents – a sitting president and vice president of the United States had avoided serving their country in combat while war hero Kerry battled the Viet Cong. There was no high road (Mr. Shrum? Hello?) in the 2004 presidential election, and the Iraq War, a legitimate foreign policy concern, was trivialized into a debate on patriotism because Kerry tossed his medals after realizing the Vietnam War was a farce.

As a television news producer (we’re slaves to pictures), I always wondered why the Kerry campaign didn’t use the images of President Bush in a flight suit on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln off the coast of San Diego (not Iraq) and his subsequent speech with the “Mission Accomplished” banner behind him as a Bush-bashing commercial. Another fumble by campaign manager Shrum. According to reporters I know on the ground in 2004 Iraq, the U.S. occupation in Iraq was spiraling into chaos, and it was all but ignored by the Kerry campaign. Iraq had been a major foreign policy blunder by the Bush administration since the 2003 invasion, and it wasn’t exploited by the anemic Kerry campaign, nor has it been by the Democrats in general since then. It has taken a war-weary American public tired of the deception to bring a national desire for the Iraq war to end.
But, on the USS Potomac floating around San Francisco Bay on election night, U.S. presidential campaign history was irrelevant. Change had happened, and a dreadful economy and two ongoing wars were not on my mind. Regardless of the tanking economy, I recalled a kernel of knowledge from Brinkley, “Presidents are defined by foreign policy because there is no one else in government charged with defining the nation’s foreign policy. The secretary of state has that mandate, of course, but he/she is a presidential aide.”

Let’s hope both the economic and foreign policy aides and the leader of the free world get us on the right track in 2009.

Matt McFetridge is a two-time Emmy Award-winning television producer who has covered 20 wars in 20 countries over 20 years. E-mail:

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