Sanders made news for the wrong reasons last week when an interview with the New York Post’s editorial board revealed his understanding of foreign policy was thin. It was an embarrassment, but it also faded relatively quickly from the news cycle, and Engel says it serves as a perfect example of the unique role foreign policy typically plays in presidential politics.
“Foreign policy can have a huge effect on a campaign, but historically almost no effect on an election,” Engel says. “It can lead to snafus, goofs or ‘oh no’ moments. It is subject to dramatic, unexpected events that can happen oversees, however almost never in American history have voters cast their ballots with foreign policy at the top of their minds.”
Despite the threats of ISIS, the plight of refugees and the specter of Benghazi – all issues that have commanded the attention of candidates at some point or another since summer – Engel expects this November’s election will be no different from those in the past.
“Americans will vote with their pocketbooks,” Engel says. “The hard fact that no one can refute is if you’re voting on foreign policy experience, it wouldn’t be a campaign. There’s no question who is the most qualified, but evidence shows voters make decisions based on their pocketbooks and something indefinable, which is who do they think should be their leader.”
Just because Engel accepts the reality of voting patterns doesn’t mean he likes them. As he sees it, voters should reprioritize the way they judge their candidates.
“There are a billion decisions made by countless people that go into the state of the economy, but only one person has control over nuclear weapons,” Engel says. “We give the president way too much credit when the economy does well and way too much grief when it does poorly. The president can make all sorts of mistakes in terms of tax policy, housing authority, regulatory policy and we’re still here, but one wrong move in foreign affairs and we lose everything.”
Engel is director of the SMU Center for Presidential History. He can discuss:
- comparisons to past presidential races
- foreign policy
- presidential rhetoric