Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Amid the hubbub about the US Senate special election today, foreign policy seems to have taken a back seat in the contest between Democratic State Attorney General Martha Coakley and Republican State Senator Scott Brown. The lack of emphasis on foreign policy by the Coakley campaign stems from her opposition to the President’s Afghanistan policy and the minimal foreign policy effect of this special election. It also bodes poorly for any hope of a future unified Democratic front on national security policy.

Scott Brown’s announcement that he would be the 41st vote against health care legislation in the Senate has become a rallying cry for both Democrats and Republicans. The last minute barrage of ads in Massachusetts includes one by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee that makes specific reference to the now (in)famous quote by Brown – “I would be the 41st vote. I would actually stop it.” Other pro-Coakley campaign ads address Brown’s policies toward taxes, job creation, financial oversight, and emergency contraception for rape victims. Domestic policy issues dominate this campaign, only six short weeks after President Obama announced the new war strategy in Afghanistan and with additional US troops already deploying to the mountainous central Asian nation.

Avoiding foreign policy issues, especially Afghanistan, seems to have been a strategic choice made by both campaigns to avoid what would have otherwise been an awkward situation. Democrat Coakley opposes President Obama’s Afghanistan strategy, while Republican Brown supports it. Although much domestic policy will be affected if Scott Brown is elected, President Obama would actually gain a supporter on national security issues in the Senate were the Republican to triumph in today’s polls. But, the fact that President Obama was in Boston on Sunday offering a full-throated endorsement of Coakley points to the simple fact that the smart folks in the White House are more worried about having a 41st Republican in the Senate than they are about Coakley opposing the President’s war plan. Obama lost the support of some congressional Democrats because of his plan to increase troop levels, but he gained just as much, if not more, Republican support in the process. Conversely, Republicans were understandably reticent to have the theme of Scott Brown’s campaign be anything approximating support for President Obama.

The Massachusetts special election does not portend well for Democrats and their unity on national security issues. Coakley, as mentioned above, opposes the president on Afghanistan, which forced her to mostly duck the issue during the campaign. The 2010 mid-term elections will happen only a few short months after President Obama’s August 31, 2010 deadline to end the “combat mission” in Iraq – pushing foreign policy issues again to the fore. If this election is any indication, the party will be extremely divided on national security issues, further dimming their already dark electoral prospects. President Obama must secure some degree of Democratic unity on Afghanistan, the major foreign policy issue of the day, to avoid an opposition Congress for the rest of his first term.

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