Foreign Policy, Not The Economy, Could Be the Republican Issue in 2016

With last month’s news that the U.S. economy grew by 5% in the last quarter, we may be coming close to the point at which the Great Recession is no longer the primary concern on voters’ minds.

It is, of course, possible that the upturn won’t last, considering how weak the recovery has been to this point. Republicans also have a strong point that President Obama cannot take credit for the growth; that the economy ought to have recovered more quickly and that gridlock, partly due to Republican opposition, prevented more harmful “stimulus” plans from going into effect.

However much truth there may be to those arguments (I think a lot), it will be harder for 2016 presidential candidates to make the case that the country needs Republicans to fix the economy. Falling gas prices and growing job markets will ease voters’ concerns and Democrats will then argue that now is not the time to change course. Conservatives recognize the unstable ground the current economy is built on, but it will be harder to persuade the population a large.

So what should Republicans focus on going into the 2016 campaigns? Obamacare is still unpopular with a majority of Americans and National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru contends that it is time to give up the possibility of reforming it and focus on repealing and replacing it. Ridding ourselves of the weight on the back of the economy that is Obamacare will ensure longer term economic strength and containing the rising costs of healthcare will benefit all Americans. It should be front and center on the domestic front for presidential campaigns.

Perhaps the greater opportunity for Republicans is foreign policy. Obama’s policy of talking a big game while things are good, only to retreat and speak tepidly when things get rough, is not working for America or her allies. America cannot simultaneously be present around the world while not engaging with the realities there. Another strategy is needed.

Republicans have many potential presidential candidates who are ready to present their cases of foreign policy. The two philosophies in play were in bold contrast when Marco Rubio and Rand Paul responded to President Obama’s decision to normalize relations with Cuba.

Senator Paul broadly backed Obama but pushed further, proposing an end to the trade embargo, something that should require an act of Congress. “The 50-year embargo just hasn’t worked. If the goal is regime change, it sure doesn’t seem to be working, and probably it punishes the people more than the regime because the regime can blame the embargo for hardship.”

Rubio pushed against the president – and Rand. “Appeasing the Castro brothers will only cause other tyrants from Caracas to Tehran to Pyongyang to see that they can take advantage of President Obama’s naiveté during his final two years in office,” he said.

Paul stuck to his guns, telling The Daily Beast, “In the past, Senator Paul has stated that he believes in more trade not less, and that includes Cuba. Peace through commerce is one of Senator Paul’s firm beliefs.”

This debate is indicative of the two major schools of thought battling within conservatism that stand contrasted with the Obama wing of the Democratic Party. Rubio’s is more hawkish, seeing harsh responses to enemies of America and/or freedom and defense of natural rights as necessary to manage American power. Rand’s is the more non-interventionist, preferring to leave others alone and use trade and prosperity to encourage others to go the route of freedom, whether that comes from a nation’s people or its leaders.

It is easy to see understand the good points of each school of thought. Paul is correct that the Cuban people may view America as the source of prosperity, trade and opportunity, and not as reinforcing their suffering. Rubio is correct in asserting that not every leader will respond in the right way or ought to receive the tacit approval that comes with a return to normalized relations. The debate among conservatives then is not so much ‘if’ as ‘when.’ (Though Jeb Bush, another potential candidate, said “We should consider strengthening [the embargo].”)

Obama hopes to have the benefits of an America with a global presence with none of its responsibilities. It isn’t working. Republicans from either Rubio’s or Rand’s camp have the opportunity to offer a foreign policy based in reality to deal with not only Cuba, but ISIS, Syria, Iran, North Korea and Russia, not to mention reform immigration. Certainly it wouldn’t be hard to imagine a stronger response than Obama’s to Islamic terrorists like those who attacked Charlie Hebdo.

Things are set up for a robust debate among Republicans in the presidential primary. The nominee should be sharp and ready to take a well-debated foreign policy philosophy to the American people. It just might come down to the international sphere if the American economy continues to overcome the fiscal boot on its throat.