The coming foreign policy election

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (C) speaks at an Invest in New Jersey event as Mexico's U.S. Ambassador Earl Anthony Wayne (L) listens at a hotel in Mexico City September 3, 2014. Christie is on a three-day trade mission in Mexico. (REUTERS/Henry Romero)
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (C) speaks at an Invest in New Jersey event as Mexico's U.S. Ambassador Earl Anthony Wayne (L) listens at a hotel in Mexico City September 3, 2014. Christie is on a three-day trade mission in Mexico. (REUTERS/Henry Romero)

It's past Labor Day in a midterm election year, which means we've reached the point when chaired foreign policy professors at our finest universities are urgently summoned by governors and junior senators eyeing the presidency so they can answer all kinds of questions like "What is ISIS?" and "Where is Gaza?" and "Is it true the Soviet Union no longer exists?"

According to The New York Times, Chris Christie is getting tutorials after causing a minor calamity by using the term "occupied territories" in a speech. (What's he supposed to know about Jewish voters? He's only the governor of New Jersey.) Rick Perry's been boning up on the various terrorist groups, too, which is impressive for a guy who struggled so mightily to remember the Energy Department.

All of which would be unremarkable, except that with a series of crises – Islamist nihilists and Russian invaders among them – fast building toward a crescendo, it's suddenly looking more as if 2016 could be the first real foreign policy election in 12 years. And in an interesting way, that could mean a collision between two powerful currents in American politics: the desire for an outsider who will disrupt the system, on one hand, and the hope for a steady, sure-handed leader on the other.

The mere mention of foreign policy as a campaign issue will make some of my friends in the academic world slam their heads against whiteboards. A raft of data, they will tell you, supports the notion that voters really care only about economic issues. Everything else is superfluous, and the entire idea of a "foreign policy election" is just something the rest of us conjure from imagination, like the tooth fairy or Herman Cain.

And yet anyone who's ever sat through a few focus groups in Iowa or New Hampshire can tell you that while voters may talk primarily about economic issues, their main judgment about a candidate comes down to leadership traits and the perceived ability to affect events. And most often, as in 1980 and 2004, economic and international instability coincide, becoming intertwined in the public mind.

Until very recently, it seemed as if the pivotal concern among voters in 2016 would be a mounting disgust with Washington. Both the White House and the Republican opposition have pretty much acknowledged that the town isn't really big enough for both of them, and that nothing of much consequence is going to get done until the voters come to their senses and disband one of the two parties under the Sedition Act. It was reasonable to think that the debate in 2016 – like the debate in most of our recent elections – would center on who could reform government itself.

That kind of environment offers a fertile breeding ground for disruptive candidacies, whether we're talking about Elizabeth Warren on the populist left or Rand Paul on the libertarian right. It's potentially great for a guy like Christie, who doesn't talk or look much like anyone's concept of a world leader but who's got a gift for channeling frustration and a salable record of bipartisan reform. In the context of this kind of election, a central piece of leadership is the promise to create a little disorder in the calcified system.

It now seems as likely as not, though, that the 2016 campaign will be waged at a moment of profound global insecurity. And the overarching issue here isn't dysfunction so much as chaos – the foreboding sense that each morning will greet us with some new, unwelcome development that makes us feel weaker and less in control. Imagine a primary season in which the Russian flag flies over Kiev and an Islamic caliphate rules from Baghdad, and when American athletes have to think hard about whether to compete in the Olympics or the World Cup for fear of being abducted by terrorist groups we can't even name.

In that kind of election, leadership is more about order, or at least the illusion of it, than about disorder. It's about who we think can get a handle on events that seem to be spiraling beyond anyone's grasp, without conceding, as President Obama seemed to do last week, that the world is just a messed-up place and we're all going to have to get used to it.

You would think a moment like this would naturally benefit a candidate like Hillary Clinton (if, in fact, she is a candidate), whose international experience and innate caution might be reassuring to the broad swath of American voters who don't scream "Benghazi!" in their sleep. In fact, the history of foreign policy elections suggests it's not so simple.

For starters, not since John F. Kennedy in 1960 have Democrats actually won an election in which war and foreign crises were paramount. Not so long ago, it looked as if the party might have finally transcended the reflexive anti-militarism that was its legacy after Vietnam; according to an analysis by the Democratic group Third Way, relying on polling from Gallup, Democrats enjoyed a 5-point advantage over Republicans on national security in 2007, thanks largely to the Iraq War. But more recent polling found that Republicans have regained their traditional upper hand on this issue, and Obama's struggles aren't likely to help.

And while experience is a plus when it comes to voters' judgments of a candidate generally, it hasn't seemed to make all that much difference historically, and probably does less now than ever. Ronald Reagan had almost nothing by way of international experience, while John Kerry had as much as any modern nominee. Clinton herself tried this line of reasoning during the 2008 primaries, when she asked Democratic voters whether they'd rather have her or the thoroughly untested Obama answering the White House phone at 3 a.m. They shrugged and chose the other guy.

Rather, the most successful presidential candidates at moments like this are probably those who find a way to fuse what seem like conflicting impulses in the electorate – to somehow defy the idea of stability in Washington while at the same time embodying it in foreign affairs. Reagan is the best example. When he ran in 1980, the grim economy was only part of the unpredictable barrage of news making Americans feel insecure, from hostages in Iran to a nuclear meltdown in Pennsylvania and the Skylab satellite hurtling toward Earth.

Reagan managed to unify all of it under the banner of rolling back tyranny, whether that meant a stifling government bureaucracy in Washington or a Soviet army squatting in Afghanistan. Both home and abroad, the problem, as Reagan diagnosed it, was a kind of Orwellian madness that Americans had a duty to confront. And in this he found his animating idea.

That's something no history or geography lesson will give a candidate, unless he or she has some genuine theory of what's happening in the world and the ability to communicate it. In the end, Americans have their own, intangible way of defining leadership at times of global crisis, whether you can pronounce "Slovyansk" or not.