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Who Says Foreign Policy Doesn’t Win Elections?

Trump’s Overseas Agenda Is a Golden Opportunity for Democrats

Twenty presidential candidates will participate in the first Democratic primary debate in June 2019 REUTERS

Rolling into the 2020 election, President Donald Trump is bound to tout his record on foreign policy as a resounding success. While he hasn’t built a wall and expensed it to Mexico, he has followed through on pledges to withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement and the Paris climate accord, to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, to renegotiate NAFTA, and to aggressively press China on trade. He has delivered on many of his campaign promises, whether the rest of the United States supports them or not.

Mostly not, according to public opinion surveys. While American attitudes on foreign policy tend to change very slowly, surveys conducted since Trump’s election in 2016 capture some interesting shifts, especially among Democratic voters. In the era of “America first,” Democrats are even more likely than usual to rally behind U.S. allies and multilateralism. Overwhelming majorities of Democrats support the Iran nuclear agreement, the Paris climate accord, and trade—all of which reads as a rebuke of Trump. What’s more surprising is that the public at large generally shares these views, though by more modest majorities.

With the first primary debates slated for Wednesday and Thursday, Democrats are clearly looking for a leader who can revive important alliances that have withered under Trump. A recent Pew Research Center survey found that 70 percent of Democrats and those leaning toward the Democratic Party rate improving relationships with U.S. allies as their top foreign policy goal. Large majorities of Democrats also say that U.S. relations with the rest of the world are worsening (85 percent, according an unpublished partisan breakdown of the 2018 Chicago Council Survey) and the United States is losing allies (77 percent, according to the same poll). The broader electorate feels similarly, with 56 percent of Americans saying foreign relations are worsening and 57 percent saying the United States is losing allies. In this light, Trump’s foreign policy “successes” look more like liabilities. We should expect Trump’s Democratic challengers to exploit them.

AN ENDURING DEMOCRATIC VISION

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