Republicans usually enter a presidential campaign with a built-in advantage on at least one issue: national security. Historically, voters trust the GOP to be tougher than Democrats on defense and foreign policy.
Not this time. President Obama has robbed the Republican Party of its usual foreign policy edge, thanks to his surprisingly enthusiastic prosecution of the war against terrorism. The death o f Osama bin Laden in May didn't give Obama much of a bump in opinion polls overall; unluckily for the president, the economy is still the overriding issue in voters' minds. But that doesn't mean voters didn't notice. A recent AP-GfK poll found a wide swing between voters' appraisals of Obama on domestic and foreign issues: Only 40 percent approved of his performance on the economy, but 64 percent approved of his actions on terrorism, and roughly half approved of his conduct of the war in Afghanistan.
That has left Republican candidates for president without clear territory of their own on foreign policy and defense. In effect they have replied: Yes, but we'd be tougher — tougher on terrorism, tougher on China and tougher on Iran.
"If you do not want America to be the strongest nation on Earth, I am not your president. You have that president today," Mitt Romney said in a speech last month. "An eloquently justified surrender of world leadership is still surrender."
But what would a President Romney, a President Perry or a President Cain actually do to carry out the promise of a stronger America? Even Romney, who has issued a 43-page "white paper" on national security, hasn't been very specific — except on one issue: more defense spending.
The former Massachusetts governor has promised to reverse what he calls Obama's "massive defense cuts." But there's a problem with that approach: Obama actually increased defense spending during his first three years in office, and the cuts he has proposed in future spending — $400 billion over 12 years — amount to roughly 5 percent of projected national security spending for that period.
Romney says he wants to increase military spending and establish a "floor" of 4 percent of gross domestic product, a proposal that came out of the George W. Bush administration. (Current defense spending is about 3.8 percent of GDP, not counting the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.) But how would Romney pay for more defense spending during a time of austerity? He hasn't said.
Romney's rivals for the nomination — with the notable exceptions of Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who has called for genuinely massive cuts, and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who has said defense cuts should at least be considered — have mostly fallen in line, echoing his call for more military spending.
But on other national security issues, the Republicans have been far less clear.
Take Afghanistan, a war that's in its 10th year. The GOP candidates have found an easy comfort zone in criticizing Obama for setting a deadline of 2014 for handing off security to the Afghans and for beginning the drawdown of U.S. forces next summer. Announcing a date for the U.S. departure, they say, has encouraged the Taliban and its Pakistani allies to wait us out.
But the Republicans haven't proposed serious alternatives, nor have they addressed many of the tough questions in Afghanistan: How long would they stay, and with how many troops? Would they engage in negotiations with the Taliban, to see if a deal could be cut? And how would they persuade Pakistan, a putative U.S. ally, to stop sheltering and supporting Taliban factions, perhaps the single biggest reason the war has not been won?
Romney has urged taking a tough line with Pakistan on its support of Afghan insurgents, but he hasn't said how. And if the other candidates have formulated coherent positions on how to move forward in the region, they haven't expressed them.
When Perry was asked about Pakistan last month, he delivered a rambling and incoherent response that questioned, among other things, why the U.S. hadn't sold upgraded fighter planes to India and Taiwan. And Herman Cain seemed to dismiss the importance of foreign policy altogether when he famously said it didn't matter whether he knew anything about "Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan."
"How's that going to create one job?" he asked.
The Republican candidates have been tough on China, but there, too, they have been vague — plenty of attitude but not much policy. Again, Romney is the exception: He's said he'd impose punitive tariffs on imports from China on his first day in office to retaliate against China's policy of keeping its currency artificially cheap. (Huntsman, a former ambassador to China, said that was a bad idea because the Chinese would quickly retaliate. "You're going to find yourself in a trade war," he warned.)
On Iran, the Republicans have slammed Obama for failing to stop the Islamic regime's nuclear program, but again they haven't offered any new ideas. (Romney's one strange offering was to call for the indictment of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — presumably by the International Criminal Court, which most Republicans don't like — for saying Israel should be "wiped off the map.")
So far the Republicans running for president have focused their campaigns on only one part of the national agenda: the domestic economy. They've been running for tax-cutter in chief and budget-cutter in chief — but not commander in chief.
That's understandable in a year when the economy is the voters' overriding concern. But commander in chief is a big part of the job. Voters deserve to know what these would-be presidents would do in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and how they'd act toward China and Iran. The candidates haven't told them much yet. It's time they did.