Presidential debates should focus more on foreign policy

Michael Clauser Contributor
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Rick Santorum was not pleased with the amount of camera time he received at Thursday night’s GOP debate in Ames, Iowa. With all due respect to my fellow Pennsylvanian, the most important question is not which candidates received the most attention, but which issues did.

Jobs and the economy are on everyone’s mind — and rightfully so. Last week, for the first time ever, the S&P downgraded the federal government’s credit rating, and the Dow is spastic. But does that mean that our presidential debates ought to focus on economic issues?

What powers does the Constitution give the president for job creation, taxation and unemployment? Very few. The Constitution leaves those issues to Congress, the states and the people.

Article II of the Constitution outlines the job of the president:

Clause 1: The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States; […]

Clause 2: He shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur; and he shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments […]

In short, the president executes U.S. military and foreign policy. The chief diplomat and commander-in-chief is neither legislator nor jurist. Following the example of America’s first president, he is to be “first in peace, and first in war.” He is America’s hand in the world: sometimes open, warmly inviting a friendly shake; sometimes clenched in a fist; and sometimes concealed.

But you wouldn’t know that from watching the Ames debate. Military and foreign policy issues weren’t even raised until the second half of it.

There’s too much at stake to get off track:

  • A congressional “super committee” is set to “gut our military” (as Newt Gingrich put it) by making between $400 billion and $1 trillion in cuts;
  • The U.S. is involved in a “limited kinetic operation” (as former Defense Secretary Robert Gates put it) with Libya sans congressional authorization;
  • Ten years of fighting in Afghanistan may culminate in a precipitous, politically motivated withdrawal;

Those issues alone are easily enough to gobble up an entire presidential debate.

Yes, defining marriage is important. As is abortion. And gun rights. And the economy — and jobs. But most of the responsibility for those issues lies with Congress, not the president.

And if these precious few debates are presidential job interviews, then let’s quit the side talk and get down to the business of the presidency: conducting foreign affairs.

Michael Clauser most recently served as the national security legislative assistant to a senior congressman on both the Armed Services and Intelligence committees. He previously served in the administration of President George W. Bush.