The theme here is that the 2016 presidential election will likely cause a swing back to the center for American politics — and this will be true (with one exception) no matter who wins. However, for national security issues and budgets, there could be sizable and significant differences between the candidates. Here are some of the various factors at work:
On the Democratic side: A Bernie Sanders win would allow the vast majority of the Obama administration, both senior people and policies, to stay in place. And this would likely be the exception to the “swing back to the center.” In fact, the swing would likely be the other way — to even more liberal and socialized programs and policies than are in place now. For example, a move toward fully socialized heath care with a single payer “Medicare-like” system for everyone. The enormous cost of social programs such as these — assuming they got by Congress — would squeeze other budgets, especially defense, and our national security could become more precarious than it is now.
A Hillary Clinton win will be more unremarkable in that we would likely see a return to the Bill Clinton-style of “triangulation.” Recall how he reached out to Republicans and conservatives while “selling out” the more liberal elements of the Democratic Party. In other words, most of the Obama people would be replaced and the “Bernie effect” would be quickly neutralized within a “new” Clinton administration. Defense budgets would likely flatten, as would funding for overseas operations against terrorism. The net effect would be a push to the “center left,” as with the first Clinton administration. And we would probably see many of the Bill Clinton senior people back in key national security jobs.
On the Republican side: A Republican victory involves two distinct scenarios — one for Donald Trump and the other for anyone other than Mr. Trump. However, any Republican administration would, first, be a significant move to the “center right” and away from President Obama and second, result in increased national security spending. A major difference, however, will be the extent to which the policies and people from the George W. Bush administration will play in any new Republican administration.
In the “anybody but Trump” category, we would expect to see the most influence from George W. Bush policies and the return of many of his senior people. It also means the return of the “neocons” to government: The major significance of this dynamic is the characterization of the Iraq war: The Bush people supported and advocated it, and continue to defend it.
Donald Trump states that he did not and does not support our invasion of Iraq as a response to Sept. 11 and sees it as, first, very costly for us, and second, the major destabilizing factor in the Middle East. By taking this position, he separates himself from the rest of the Republican candidates, and is able to criticize the Bush Iraq policy aggressively. Which he does — and in the process, picks up support from a broad spectrum of voters, Republicans and Democrats alike.
Finally, of course, a Trump victory could mean a rather massive increase in the defense budget, so that, as he says, “no one would mess with us.” In fact, Mr. Trump will likely spend more on national security than any other candidate if he is nominated and elected.
As a final thought, Donald Trump often talks of his admiration for Ronald Reagan and of Reagan’s informed personal transition on many contentious political and social issues. But Reagan also effectively utilized both “Defense Democrats” and neocons in his strategy to bring down the Soviet Union.
Likewise, Mr. Trump needs to — eventually — try to loop both of these groups into advocates for his “new” approaches to defeating the sources and support of radical religious-based terrorism. Bottom line: The fact that the neocons and the Bush people were wrong about Iraq — and they were — does not mean that they cannot be helpful and effective national security team players in a Trump administration.
• Daniel Gallington served in senior national security policy positions in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Department of Justice and as general counsel for the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.