Leave it to the mainstream media to predict the end of Donald Trump’s candidacy just when he’s surging in the polls again. The latest member of the “Trump’s-a-Goner” club is Politico, the upstart news magazine that seems intent on morphing into another stodgy fixture of the Washington political and media establishment. In a recent issue, the magazine published a lengthy article suggesting that the ISIS Paris attacks and the rising concern over global insecurity would place a premium on Republican presidential candidates that had a “command” of foreign policy issues rather than “neophytes” like Trump and co-front-runner Ben Carson who are presumably “out of their element.”
These are familiar views. We heard them when Ronald Reagan’s insurgent campaign was steaming toward the nomination in 1979, much to the consternation of the GOP party establishment which feared that he was “too extreme” for the general electorate. It’s probably no surprise, then, that all of the quotes from unnamed sources in the Politico article are attributed to “Republican party elders.” These are the same people who have erroneously predicted Trump’s demise from the beginning – and they are increasingly desperate to derail the real estate magnate from getting the nomination, just as their forbears were so anxious to stop Reagan.
We remember – and laud — Reagan today as the hero of the American Cold War but like Trump, he was no foreign policy expert, and he was prone to blunt, off-the-cuff remarks that, as with Trump, raised serious eyebrows. His conservative instincts told him that the Soviet Union was a threat to world peace, and that America needed a far more robust military to force the Soviets into retreat — which is exactly what happened after he took office.
In fact, most of what the former California governor knew in detail about foreign and defense policy he learned from the neoconservative movement – which was largely comprised of ex-Democrats disgruntled with the establishment in both parties, including most Republicans. Reagan had a brain trust, which Trump still lacks, but it’s entirely conceivable that he will hire one, especially as his candidacy continues to consolidate, which seems increasingly likely now.
How many other current GOP candidates are conversant in the details of foreign and defense policy? Only Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz but their “depth” comes largely from serving less than a single term in the U.S. Senate. Five years ago, Rubio was Speaker of the Florida Senate, and his only claim to foreign policy experience was living 90 miles away from Castro’s Cuba. Once Rubio got to the Senate, a number of senior Republicans took him under their wing to try to promote his visibility. Rubio joined the Foreign Relations Committee and began touring the world to meet influential leaders and to inspect important hotspots.
Cruz is even more of neophyte. He’s been in the Senate a scant three years, and has insinuated himself into many important policy debates. However, prior to his election in 2012, he was Texas’ Solicitor General, undoubtedly an important job, but not one that exposed him to foreign and defense policy. It did expose him to the GOP establishment, however, and like Rubio, he has used some his time in the Senate to school himself of national security questions. Does it make him qualified to be Commander-in-Chief? It’s hard to know. Like Trump, he’s never actually made any executive-level national security decisions.
The rest of the field may well be worse off. Neither Jeb Bush nor Chris Christie has previous foreign and defense policy experience. That leaves only two-term Ohio governor John Kasich, who once chaired the House armed services committee where he pushed a host of military funding bills through the Congress. However, he did this two decades ago in a vastly different global environment. And right now, because of his views on immigration and social issues, he’s about as popular in the GOP as Jon Huntsman was in 2012.
What makes someone “qualified” to be Commander-in-Chief? John McCain and John Kerry were two of the nation’s most experienced foreign policy presidential candidates – both were decorated war veterans, in fact — and yet both lost, in part, because of basic questions about their judgment. Throughout our history, successful Commanders-in-Chief have displayed strong instincts about the nature of the threats facing our country and have exhibited an uncanny intuitive ability to make difficult and courageous decisions under fire. Trump may or may not have these qualities. Clearly, a strong part of the GOP electorate thinks he does. And as long as they do, it probably won’t matter what GOP “elders” – with their own checkered record of national security stewardship – seem to think about it.