GOP Governors Seek to Sharpen Foreign Policy Skills

Jeb Bush in Europe

Photo courtesy of IBTimes

GOP Governors Seek to Sharpen Foreign Policy Skills
| published June 9, 2015 |

By R. Alan Clanton Thursday Review editor

One reason the already crowded field of Republican presidential candidates has grown even more numerous is thanks to governors. Polling—public and private—as well as strategic thinking by both Republicans and Democrats, show a substantial increase of interest in former governors occupying the White House. By definition governors know how to govern, or so the theory goes.

This surge in popularity for state chief execs has unwittingly created a divide within that now large crop of heavyweight GOP contenders, all of whom say that they are best qualified to seek the Presidency by way of a head-to-head battle with Democratic front runner Hillary Clinton. The first GOP debates will pit governors against Senators, and never before has the Republican Party seen this many chief executives in a pre-primary-pre-caucus presidential field.

Candidates like Rick Perry and George Pataki, each of whom announced their candidacies within the last week, will surely tout their experience as chief executives as the top line on their resumes. And they will sell the challenges. Governors must form consensus—quickly—in order to get things done, and in most states this requires reaching across the political aisle to get things done. Senators and Representatives by contrast, emerging from their idealistic freshman years in Washington, become not only accustomed to gridlock and partisan squabbling, but all too often fall comfortably into the existing pattern of deferring action and dodging problem-solving—at least according to governors.

But the folks sitting in the chief executive’s chair in the governor’s mansion get no such luxury to kick the can down the road. Budgets must be balanced, highways must be paved, schools must open their doors, employees must be paid, and the state must continue to operate each day—around the clock. Former Texas Governor Rick Perry has already unholstered his gun on this point, telling an audience in Dallas that one cannot govern by simply delivering speeches on the floor of the Senate, a jibe aimed squarely at the several U.S. Senators now seeking the presidency—fellow Texan Ted Cruz among them.

But governors often have a weak spot: foreign policy. Other than trade delegations to other countries, state chief executives often have little reason to dabble in foreign affairs or international negotiations.

Rick Perry can use the example of his state’s long border with Mexico as de facto foreign policy experience. After all, he has dealt daily with the often complex and costly issue of illegal crossings and a myriad of other matters associated with the southern border: criminal activities and drug smuggling, human trafficking, illegal entry by those seeking jobs, and the 2013-14 surge in youth and teen immigration—unaccompanied children fleeing the gang violence of El Salvador, Honduras and the southern states of Mexico.

Perry’s border experience aside, most governors—however—come up short on international affairs and foreign policy, and attempts to co-opt negotiating bona fides or to exaggerate experience can backfire terribly. Think of Sarah Palin’s ill-advised references to Russia.

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, a front-runner in a highly fluid field in which polls show Bush jostling with others for first place, can also (like Perry) point to a home state burgeoning with immigrants and a geography which lends itself to international issues. Florida is home to the nation’s largest population of Cuban-Americans, and is second only to New York State for all other Caribbean basin transplants and people with familial roots in South America. In addition to his fluency in Spanish (he lived once in Venezuela), Bush can also cite his state’s immensely complex business dealings with scores of countries as de facto foreign policy experience.

But Bush has also been out of the loop for more than a decade, unlike Perry who just recently ceded the governor’s mansion after a record 14 years as Texas chief executive (Perry succeeded George W. Bush). And Bush will be going head-to-head with fellow Floridian Marco Rubio, a military and foreign policy hawk already a top member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a member of the Select Committee on Intelligence.

That’s why Bush has been busy not merely on the campaign trail in states like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, but also boning up on overseas credentials. Bush, who is expected to announce his candidacy on June 15 in Miami, has been keeping a dizzying schedule—including visits to foreign lands and exotic ports of call. As part of a week’s worth of travel, Bush will visit Germany, Poland and Estonia, among other countries. The west-to-east traverse is not coincidental: Bush may, according to some sources, be sharpening his debate skills when it comes to holding forth on the threat of a resurgent Moscow. Russia’s proxy war in the Ukraine is now responsible for some 9,000 confirmed deaths, and evidence that Russia is involved directly in the battle mounts with each passing week. Vladimir Putin has been unabashedly sour on the thought of any more former Soviet states making moves toward the EU or toward NATO, a fact which prompted Moscow to give tacit (later overt) approval to the pro-Russian militants who have been fighting the Ukrainian army for more than 16 months.

Bush’s quick visit to Estonia is his way of injecting himself positively into the growing tensions along Russia’s western frontier, and a way to erase the lingering pain from his only serious blunder on foreign policy (a thrice-revised statement regarding what he would have done differently than his brother in Iraq). Estonia is one of several small counties now operating in the long shadow of Russia’s military, and a likely target for future bullying by Putin.

Though she served as U.S. Secretary of State during the current Obama administration, Republicans will likely use foreign policy as a blunt weapon against Hillary Clinton. There is the obvious: she will be hammered on Benghazi, and GOP candidates will surely also link that tragic fiasco to her improvised email platform and her use of a homebrew server during her tenure at State. Expect to hear the phrase “deleted emails” a lot in the early Republican debates. Then there is the Putin Doctrine, and the threat of what Russia could do in Europe—another hot topic among the Republican candidates.

You can expect all GOP contenders (Governors and Senators) to be in general agreement when it comes to bashing Clinton, and—by extension—Obama foreign policy. But that baker’s dozen of Republican candidates will also be seeking ways to break out of the pack early. And that means skirmishes on foreign policy—as in who has the real-deal experience, as well as the moxie to confront Putin. Early debates will also likely feature a long, complex list of competing foreign policy and international issues: ISIS and the general meltdown in stability in Iraq and Syria, Turkish participation in efforts to contain ISIS, Boko Haram in Africa, Chinese aggression and assertion in the South China Sea (and its existential threat to Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam), al Qaeda and radical Islamist operations in Pakistan, the current drawdown and withdrawal in Afghanistan, drug and cartel violence in Mexico, and the interminable surge of out-migration from war-torn Africa and the Middle East with tens of thousands of people flooding into Italy, as well as cities and towns across southern Europe.

Foreign policy debates will not be limited to the ones which involve drones, guns, or improvised explosives: the Greek fiscal meltdown also poses a serious threat to the stability of the European economy, a subject being discussed this week at the G7 summit, but something GOP candidates will surely debate.

Among the other Republicans who have come to the presidential race by way of a governor’s mansion, Bush may have the longest resume and the strongest credentials. During the Bush tenure, by some estimates Florida was involved in more international trade negotiations than any other U.S. state, and Bush shepherded trade missions and other overseas projects on scores of occasions in nearly 20 countries. But Bush must also shake off his familial connections to brother George W, a task which has already proved more complicated than perhaps Jeb Bush’s team had imagined. Among other problems, Jeb may be get a chilly welcome from some in Europe for his mere dynastic association with George W, even though father George H.W. Bush is widely admired for his stewardship over U.S. foreign policy at the time of the Communist crack-up and the dismantling of the Berlin Wall.

In the meantime, expect those GOP governors to spend lots of time talking foreign policy, military matters and international affairs. Each candidate—the Governors and the Senators—will be seeking ways to break away from the pack, and despite his stature as tentative front runner and fundraising leader, Bush is considered a latecomer to the field. Short of someone else jumping into the Republican fray within the next few days—and anything could happen during that brief interim—by the time Bush makes his candidacy official, he will be the 11th major GOP candidate. If businessman Donald Trump jumps in officially, the field is an even dozen.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Rick Perry Joins Crowded 2016 Contest; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; June 4, 2015.

GOP Candidates Field-Test Messages; Thursday Review staff; Thursday Review; May 10, 2015.