Foreign Policy Issues in the 1980 Campaign

March 21, 1980

Report Outline
Partisanship in Foreign Policy
Past Foreign Policy Debates
Campaign Themes and Tactics

Partisanship in Foreign Policy

Growing Voter Interest in World Events

A time-honored political axiom holds that Americans vote according to the fullness of their pocketbooks. But despite increasing economic woes at home, it is U.S. foreign policy that has captured voter attention during the early stages of the 1980 presidential campaign. With candidates speaking out more and more on international issues, that interest seems likely to continue. World affairs “used to be near the bottom of [people's] concerns,” said Patrick Caddell, President Carter's pollster. “Now it ranks right behind inflation as the major thing on their minds.”

In state after state, voters want to know what candidates would do about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the holding of American hostages in Iran. Many candidates, in turn, have used the campaign as a forum to express their apprehensions about declining U.S. power and influence abroad. The post-Vietnam era, marked by doubts about this country's role in the world, appears to be ending. And as it does, some political analysts are predicting the emergence of a new national consensus for a strong and vigilant foreign policy.

Such a consensus, however, has yet to come into clear focus. This is due in part to the ambiguous nature of current events and to the fact that President Carter has declined to become directly involved in campaigning until the Iran hostage situation is settled. As a result, both Republican and Democratic candidates have tended to speak in general rather than specific terms about how U.S. foreign policy should be conducted in the coming decade. “In their varying ways [all of them] are invoking an older, cozier notion of a special providence watching over the United States, of an American uniqueness and a special mission in the world,” wrote Washington Post columnist Stephen S. Rosenfeld. The common theme of most candidates' foreign policy pronouncements is that the nation has not so much lost “the cushion” of its superiority as it has “the vision” of its former self. “Let's Make America Great Again,” Ronald Reagan's campaign slogan, is perhaps the most characteristic rhetoric in this vein.

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