Democratic presidential candidates are facing a new commander-in-chief test, as the crisis with Iran is sparking a robust foreign policy debate less than one month before the voting begins in the primary campaign.
Senators still in the race stepped away from the campaign trail on Wednesday, returning to Capitol Hill for a classified briefing — and to raise sharp questions about President Donald Trump’s Middle East strategy.
The new focus on foreign policy, less than four weeks from the Iowa caucuses, could force Democratic 2020 contenders — whose foreign policy remarks have largely focused on condemning Trump for pulling away from international agreements — to articulate their own vision of the United States’ place in the world.
It’s been more than a decade since a full-throated foreign policy debate unfolded inside the Democratic Party, when opposition to the Iraq War was central to the rise of Barack Obama and complicated the candidacy of Hillary Clinton.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders believes it’s high time to have that discussion. He and former Vice President Joe Biden are on a collision course, with Sanders seizing on Biden’s 2002 vote authorizing the Iraq War.
But Biden is embracing his foreign policy experience, dismissing Sanders and training his sights on Trump.
“Donald Trump’s short-sighted America first dogmatism has come home to roost,” Biden said Tuesday in New York, blasting Trump for damaging relations with allies. “We’re alone now. We’re alone and will have to bear the cost of Donald Trump’s folly.”
It’s an open question whether voters will value the long experience from Biden’s lifetime of service or be moved by fresh promises of judgment from rivals like Pete Buttigieg, the 37-year-old former South Bend, Indiana, mayor, who spent seven months in Afghanistan as a US Navy Reserve lieutenant and says his decisions as president would be shaped by his military background.
At a Wednesday fundraiser in Dallas, Buttigieg said the next president will have to develop a much higher, clearer bar for the use of force, as well as “restore the credibility of our country around the world.”
“The Iran situation is a good example of not only questionable decision making, to put it charitably, but think about, never mind what just happened, but what’s about to happen,” Buttigieg told supporters.
The politics of foreign policy are always complicated, but even more so in the age of Trump, who after days of saber-rattling suddenly shifted his focus to de-escalation with Iran during a speech Wednesday from the White House.
Democratic presidential contenders left the classified briefing Wednesday saying they are skeptical of the Trump administration’s argument that the top Iranian commander Trump ordered killed in Iraq posed an imminent threat.
New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker described the session as “a wholly unsatisfying briefing.”
“In 75 minutes, I was presented with no evidence about an imminent threat,” Booker said. “it’s very frustrating.”
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren also said Qasem Soleimani posed no imminent threat, and that because of Trump’s decision the United States is no safer but “much closer to war.”
Sanders on Wednesday tweeted: “The American people do not want war with Iran. They want to invest in health care, education, housing, and good jobs. Congress cannot stand by. It must act now to pass our legislation to uphold the Constitution and prevent Trump from spending trillions more on endless war.”
Sanders and Warren were set to appear Wednesday night on a MoveOn.org call with thousands of grassroots activists to oppose the prospect of war with Iran.
Yet neither Sanders, Warren, Booker nor Sen. Amy Klobuchar made that point to a waiting bank of television cameras after their briefing, rushing away from the Capitol quickly without taking questions by a swarm of waiting reporters.
The Trump campaign, meanwhile, was showing its eagerness to characterize the Democratic opposition to Trump’s actions as defending Soleimani, seizing on Sanders’ characterization of the strike that killed Soleimani as an “assassination.” Sanders has not defended Soleimani, but has said his killing destabilizes the region.
Pointing to his remarks and calling Sanders the “front-runner” for the 2020 Democratic nomination, Trump rapid response director Andrew Clark said in an email Wednesday that “Sanders has refused to acknowledge the American blood on his hands and repeated talking points straight from Iran’s Ayatollahs.”
For the last year, Democrats have spent more time talking about their opposition to the Trump’s foreign policy agenda than to outlining their own view of America’s place in the world.
Democrats blame Trump for withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal — reached with President Obama — but spend less time telling voters the degree to which their administrations would be interventionist.
Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, who was the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 2016, is urging senators to adopt a war powers resolution requiring the president to gain congressional approval before escalating military action. In the wake of the Iran crisis, he said Democratic candidates should be having a robust foreign policy conversation.
“It’s important that we make this a larger priority,” Kaine said Wednesday, adding that candidates were obligated to tell Americans how they intended to keep them safe from threats.
Kaine said he suspected an intense foreign policy debate between Biden and Sanders was forthcoming. He said Biden’s old Iraq war vote was fair game, but added: “I don’t know how much weight you should give it.”