As the terror threat has grown over the last month, Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton has delivered two major addresses on national security and defending the homeland. Her chief rival, Sen. Bernard Sanders, has delivered none.
With his message geared toward domestic issues of taxes, spending and income inequality, the Vermont senator’s campaign is challenged by the need to start talking about issues beyond his economics comfort zone — and which puts him on the turf of Mrs. Clinton, the country’s former top diplomat.
“He’s got issues — such that people would wonder if he could win a general election,” said Dennis J. Goldford, professor of political science at Drake University. “With his economic message and focus, he’s become a bit of a one-note samba.”
Mr. Goldford attended the second Democratic debate, held at his school in Iowa on the day after the Paris attacks, and viewed it as a perfect opportunity for Mr. Sanders to build out his foreign policy agenda.
“But he really just avoided the topic,” Mr. Goldford said. “He missed the chance to begin to establish some sort of credibility on foreign issues.”
Indeed, Mr. Sanders’ campaign reportedly “threw a fit,” when CBS, which broadcast the debate, informed them it was changing the format to start with a 30-second answer from each of the candidates about the terrorist attack in Paris.
At the third debate, held this weekend in New Hampshire, Mrs. Clinton and Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley kicked off their opening statements with vows to keep America safe from Islamist terrorism while not angering Muslims, while Mr. Sanders said his campaign is about American politics and global warming.
“I’m running for president of the United States because it is too late for establishment politics and establishment economics,” he said, listing global warming, campaign finance and the need to boost wages as his reasons for running. He added he also wants a “new foreign policy” that relies on coalitions rather than American power to tackle major world problems.
“Sanders gives the same speech over and over again — only addressing economic issues. He won’t address anything else,” said Tom Henderson, the Polk County Iowa Democratic chairman. “It resonates with a certain angst but is limiting.”
Mrs. Clinton has looked to highlight her foreign policy credentials as terrorism fears surge, pointing to her time as secretary of state. She delivered a national security speech at the Council on Foreign Relations on Nov. 19 and then, in a separate speech last week, outlined her plan for battling the Islamic State, also known by the acronyms ISIL and ISIS, and homegrown radicalization.
Mr. Sanders has yet to deliver a speech on the topic but is planning a foreign policy address soon, said Michael Briggs, his campaign communication director.
“The senator realizes this is a very important issue — and will and does address it,” Mr. Briggs said.
He waved off concerns over Mr. Sanders’ focus, saying it’s “factually incorrect” to say the senator has given short shrift to foreign policy.
“He’s talked about ISIS and foreign policy on several Sunday morning talk shows — of which he’s been on much more frequently than Mrs. Clinton — in his Georgetown speech and at town hall meetings when it comes up,” said Mr. Briggs. “Just yesterday he was on MSNBC with Andrea Mitchell talking about ISIS.”
Still, at a press conference in Baltimore this month, campaign officials told the press not to ask questions about the Islamic State. When he was at the podium, they did anyway, and Mr. Sanders answered them by wondering whether voters cared.
“How often are these people talking about the issues we talked about today?” Mr. Sanders said, pointing at the press. “Of course I’ll talk about ISIS, but today what we are talking about is a community in which half of the people don’t have jobs. We’re talking about a community in which there are hundreds of buildings that are uninhabitable. We’re talking about a community where kids are unable to go to schools that are decent.
“You want to ask me about ISIS, we will talk about ISIS. But what I said, and let me repeat, is obviously ISIS and terrorism are a huge national issue we have to address. But so is poverty, so is unemployment, so is education, so is health care, so is the need to protect working families,” Mr. Sanders said.
When he does talk foreign policy, Mr. Sanders shies away from specifics. In Saturday’s debate he said he sides with Americans who don’t have faith the government can prevent lone-wolf attacks in the U.S., but offered little in the way of a solution.
Instead he vowed to “crush and destroy ISIS,” and said he will succeed where others have failed at assembling a coalition of Middle Eastern nations.
“My plan is to make it work, to tell Saudi Arabia that instead of going to war in Yemen, they, one of the wealthiest countries on Earth, are going to have to go to war against ISIS. To tell Qatar that, instead of spending $200 billion on the World Cup, maybe they should pay attention to ISIS, which is at their doorstep,” he said.
Rob Boatright, a political science professor at Clark University in Massachusetts, said Mr. Sanders may be right in his strategy to focus on domestic issues in a Democratic primary.
“He’s playing a different game, addressing different issues,” said Mr. Boatright. “He’s struck a vein among Democratic voters — he’s running to make a point, and the more he makes that point, the more Hillary Clinton will have to do to accommodate him and his voters on it.”
A recent Monmouth Poll found Democratic voters still rank the economy and jobs as their top issue, even in the wake of the Paris and San Bernardino terrorist attacks.
Democratic activist Kurt Meyer of St. Ansgar, Iowa, said Mr. Sanders’ message is winning over fresh faces. He said he attended a recent event where three of the 11 people were new to local party affairs and were Sanders supporters — retirees who were drawn by his income inequality message.
“With his message he’s really touching distant and disenfranchised people from government, making them step up and do what they can for a candidate that, for the first time, has motivated them to become part of the process,” Mr. Meyer said.