[Overseas view]Foreign policy matters in elections

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[Overseas view]Foreign policy matters in elections

Republican nominee Sen. John McCain’s choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential running mate guaranteed headlines and greater public interest in the Republican national convention, held earlier this month in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota.

Democratic nominee Sen. Barack Obama’s selection of Sen. Joe Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as his campaign partner underscored the importance of foreign policy experience.

The international dimension has been extremely important in every American political convention since 1952. That was the last contested convention, in which the presidential nominee had not yet been selected when the party faithful convened. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower fought an intense, bitter contest with Sen. Robert Taft for the Republican Party nomination, and won.

Foreign policy overall, and the Korean War in particular, played a decisive role at that convention. Gen. Eisenhower, serving at the time as the first supreme commander of the new NATO alliance, pledged to “go to Korea” if elected to the White House.

Indeed, he was able to achieve an armistice in that brutal and costly war within a few months of assuming the presidency. Taft was a leading isolationist and opponent of alliances and the United Nations.

Gen. Douglas MacArthur, relieved of command in Korea by President Harry Truman, had his own presidential ambitions. He garnered little public support in the presidential primaries of that time.

Nonetheless, desperate to stop Ike, he was privately offered the vice presidential nomination by Taft. Sen. Taft died during Eisenhower’s first term. Had he won at the convention and in the election, MacArthur would have become president. The United States came closer than most people realize to having the very warlike general in charge of foreign policy.

Some argue that Gov. Palin’s inexperience in foreign policy is a major weakness; her selection does highlight the changing roles of age and gender in presidential politics. These considerations also show the evolution of the vice presidency.

Many thought the nod would go to former governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, with important Michigan ties, or Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota. The Midwest has become a presidential battleground region.

Women have become steadily more influential in American politics since the late 1960s. Until then, women and men voted in similar patterns, with the former somewhat more Republican.

Since that decade, women voters have moved substantially to the Democratic Party. Female voters are also much more likely than males to move between parties, and between voting and nonvoting, from one election to the next. Karl Rove, principal election strategist for President George W. Bush, gave a high priority to winning 50 percent of the votes of white women in the 2004 election.

Gov. Palin is 44, much younger than the 72-year-old McCain, who if elected will be the oldest U.S. president at the time of inauguration. She may balance any disadvantage from his age, especially among young voters, who are becoming more politically active.

Alaska is broadly similar to western states in the “Lower 48.” The very valuable “Almanac of American Politics,” edited by Michael Barone, emphasizes the historic importance of Alaska’s natural resources, including gold as well as petroleum, sparse population and enormous size, and libertarian independence. The Republican Party dominates politics in the state.

Other western states have also been Republican in recent decades, but the Democrats are now making notable gains, reflected in the selection of Denver for the 2008 convention. The party last met in Colorado in 1908.

That year, Democratic nominee William Jennings Bryan lost to Republican William Howard Taft but took Colorado. In a time of more fluid politics, and much more closely matched parties, Gov. Palin may help hold the west in the Republican column.

John Nance Garner of Texas, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first vice president, is famous for stating the office is “not worth a pitcher of warm spit.” Unless the president died, the vice president generally was marginal.

Richard M. Nixon changed this equation. He forced acceptance as Eisenhower’s running mate by bridging the camp of Sen. Taft and the Eastern internationalists who backed the general. Age proved no handicap; Nixon was 39 at the time. Nixon brought to the ticket staunch commitment to internationalism as well as criticism of the Truman administration regarding Korea.

Since 1952, seven current or former vice presidents have been nominated for the presidency, and three of them have been elected. By not prolonging suspense, and announcing their running mates in advance of the convention, McCain and Obama acknowledge that the importance of this office goes beyond partisan politics. Considering the historical context of the selection of American candidates also bears directly on the Korea-U.S. relationship.

*The writer is a Clausen distinguished professor at Carthage College in Wisconsin. He can be reached at acyr@carthage.edu.

by Arthur I. Cyr
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