Former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams concluded the Democratic Party response to Donald Trump’s State of the Union address Tuesday night by saying, “America wins by fighting for our shared values against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” But when it comes to the “foreign” part, it wasn’t at all clear from her speech who those enemies were, or what those values are. The line was virtually the only reference to the rest of the world in her speech.
Abrams, one of the party’s rising stars, did cover a wide range of topics, including many that Trump neglected. It would have been surprising for Abrams, most of whose career has been in state-level politics, to focus heavily on foreign policy, an area that most voters care about far less than the pocketbook issues she emphasized. Still, the complete absence of foreign policy from the response contributes to a sense that the party doesn’t have much to say about America’s place in the world. And despite Trump’s numerous questionable claims about his record on North Korea and fighting ISIS, and defense of controversial policies on Israel and nuclear diplomacy, the Democrats apparently had no interest in arguing with him.
This is unfortunate. While Americans have historically trusted Republicans more on issues of national security, the margin has shrunk with Trump in office. And a strong majority of American disapprove of Trump’s handling of relations with other countries.
Granted, Trump’s very unpredictability and the degree to which his own views sometimes diverge sharply from those of his own officials—particularly on questions of military force and U.S. alliances—can make it difficult to argue with him. And the Democrats themselves are divided on a number of key issues, including the deployment of U.S. troops in the Middle East and American support for Israel.
But as leading figures in the party, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, have recently demonstrated, it is possible to craft a foreign policy message that ties alarm about the rising tide of authoritarianism abroad with traditional Democratic domestic concerns about inequality and the role of money in politics, as well as the ongoing investigation into Russian interference in the U.S. election. Abrams hinted at, but didn’t quite develop, this idea by saying in a section on voting rights that “the foundation of our moral leadership around the globe is free and fair elections, where voters pick their leaders, not where politicians pick their voters.”
Trump’s speech indicated that his re-election campaign will rely heavily on his supposed determination to destroy ISIS, cut a deal with North Korea, defend Israel, confront Iran, and stand up to China when no one else was willing to. Democrats can’t let these claims go unchallenged and, in the next two years, need to craft a strong message of their own.
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