There has been plenty of national security talk on the presidential campaign trail. Whether any of it has been substantial is a separate issue.
Contenders for the Democratic and Republican nominations have sounded off on national security, troop levels, the VA and more. So far, candidates in both parties see that the best formula for discussing defense issues with early primary voters is to go heavy on rhetoric and light on specific strategies. Broad promises to wipe out the Islamic State group are in. Deployment plans and budget details fall flat.
In recent weeks, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., have laid out lengthy memos detailing fleet sizes, personnel plus-ups and defense spending.
Some call for a bigger Army and Marine Corps, as well as more aircraft for the Air Force and more ships for the Navy.
Bush, in particular, has emphasized the importance of electing a responsible and knowledgeable commander-in-chief. Neither candidate has made a big move up in the polls.
Presidential hopeful Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who based almost his entire campaign around defense and foreign policy, offered an outline for a new use of military force in Iraq and specific ground force totals for the fight against IS. He dropped out of the race in mid-December with minuscule poll numbers.
Meanwhile, business mogul Donald Trump has arguably the most lightweight defense plan in the presidential field: broad-brush promises to “make our military so big, so strong and so great, so powerful that we’re never going to have to use it.” He continues to be the clear front-runner in GOP polls.
“That tells us what political consultants love to say but defense experts hate to hear: People don’t actually seem to vote on national security,” said Heather Hurlburt, a policy director at the think tank New America. “Graham didn’t have a ‘Make America Great Again’ message. Instead, he was talking troop totals and war plans. It’s just not in the candidates’ interests to be too specific.”
But the problem is that gives defense watchers only a small sense of the philosophies and priorities of the candidates — at a time when the issues of terrorism and open-ended military operations have risen to the forefront of the presidential race.
Republican voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina — three key early primary election states — listed national security as their top priority in recent polls. The majority of the last two debates quizzed Republican and Democratic candidates on IS, Russia and American use of military force.
Mackenzie Eaglen, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said the problem with the candidates’ vagueness is that it masks a real divide in their approach to military strategy, and a shift in political realities.
“The Republican Party is no longer the Defense Department’s white knight,” Eaglen said. “There’s no longer a guarantee that a Republican president is going to come in and add to defense spending. But nobody seems to get that.”
She points to comments from Trump, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, all of whom have promised “stronger” military policies — while also preaching fiscal restraint and limited overseas military engagement.
“Politicians all love the troops but hate the defense budget,” Eaglen said. “There’s a feeling out there that if you can’t make it work with a half-trillion dollar budget, you’re doing something wrong.”
Those approaches stand in opposition to Bush, Rubio and former business leader Carly Fiorina, who have called for significant military funding increases but have struggled to raise the issue to a major campaign talking point.
Eaglen argued that none of the GOP candidates’ security plans unveiled so far are actually good for national security, in part because most of them have not seriously engaged on the major questions of the use of U.S. military power overseas and and the money needed to sustain that force.
Only Paul and Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders have stood out from their respective fields on military and foreign policy, and mostly because their critics decry them as isolationists.
Paul was quickly attacked by his GOP rivals during a November debate when he suggested that defense spending should be significantly reined in, even though his opponents all preached fiscal restraint for the rest of their federal spending plans.
And when Sanders criticized Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton’s plans to mount a no-fly zone over parts of Iraq and Syria, he subsequently saw that criticism get spun into questions about whether he is too much of a pacifist to keep the nation secure.
“At the end of the day, the fallback for all of the candidates is: ‘We’ll make it all safer,’ ” said David Rehr, a director of George Washington University’s School of Political Management. “And for the Republicans, they don’t feel like they have to do much, because they just have to be different from Obama and Clinton.”
Rehr said that none of the political evasiveness should be surprising during the primary season.
In the Democratic field, Clinton has a poll lead large enough to stick to generalities on issues that won’t sway many voters. On the Republican side, most of the candidates are looking for ways to siphon off supporters from rivals with broad promises without tough consequences.
The question becomes whether a smaller pool of candidates eventually gives way to more serious defense discussions.
“I talk to friends who follow China policy and trade policy and joke that every four years we have big debates on those issues in the presidential campaigns that are so far removed from any actual policies,” Hulburt said. “Maybe defense is getting in that area now.”