Newsletter: Essential Politics: Spotlight on foreign policy


Foreign policy and the fight against the Islamic State militants in the Mideast burst into the presidential campaign this week and so far have strengthened the front runners in both parties.

Good afternoon, I'm David Lauter, Washington Bureau Chief. Welcome to the Friday edition of Essential Politics, in which we look at the major developments of the past week in the race for president and highlight stories that provide insight beyond the immediate headlines.

The impact of the Paris attacks in the Democratic campaign wasn't hard to predict -- Sen. Bernie Sanders is a candidate focused on domestic policy. His main line of criticism of Hillary Clinton on foreign policy has been her vote more than a decade ago to support the Iraq War. If that vote were going to sink the former secretary of State's campaign, as it did in 2008, the impact would have been felt long ago.

Clinton gave a somewhat halting and defensive account of her policies at Saturday's Democratic debate in Iowa, but, as Cathy Decker noted in her analysis of the debate, Clinton's stumbles have not seemed to matter.

On Thursday, Clinton spelled out her plans in much more detail, laying out several differences with President Obama while proposing a plan that would go somewhat further than current policy, but continue in the same general direction.

The Republican side has been harder to predict all along. This week was no exception.

Most of the GOP candidates have been strenuously denouncing Obama's foreign policies for months but, in practice, offering plans of their own that might be described as "Obama plus." With a few exceptions, as Christi Parsons and I wrote, they have not proposed sending U.S. combat forces back to Iraq or into Syria. Instead, like Clinton, they have suggested they would execute something similar to the current policy, but with more vigor.

On Wednesday, Jeb Bush spelled out his approach in a speech in South Carolina. He combined tough rhetoric about "overwhelming force" with an undefined proposal to "increase our presence on the ground" and lead a coalition effort against the Islamic State.

In another year, a terrorism crisis might be a boost for a candidate like Bush, who combines executive experience with foreign policy fluency. But this year, at least on the Republican side, experience in government has been a minus, and the Bush name increasingly seems to be a burden that the son and brother of presidents may be unable to surmount.

So far, the main beneficiary on the GOP side appears to be Donald Trump. The crisis has given him new opportunities for the sort of tough talk that his supporters cheer, including the suggestion that he would use a government database to track Muslims. Trump, who had seemed to be losing some steam in polls last month, has strengthened his lead recently, both in national surveys and polls of voters in New Hampshire.

The candidate on the downswing now appears to be Ben Carson. The retired neurosurgeon seems to be going through the cycle of discovery, rise, scrutiny, decline that tends to happen with previously unknown candidates. His decline in polls, in New Hampshire, nationally and more recently in Iowa, where he had his greatest strength, may have been worsened by the focus on foreign policy, a subject on which he has struggled to answer questions. 

Meantime, even aside from the aftermath of the terror attack, this was a busy week on the campaign trail. Clinton won the backing of the Service Employees International Union, one of the most politically powerful labor organizations. Bobby Jindal dropped out of the campaign after an effort to bait Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey at the last GOP candidate debate went nowhere. And a Wall Street analysis of media firms estimated that political ad spending this cycle will hit $6 billion.

In Iowa, Evan Halper and Noah Bierman looked at the grunt work that goes into winning the caucus. From washing dishes at chili nights to organizing group yoga, the Clinton and Sanders campaigns are doing all they can to pamper the state's voters. 

Seema Mehta took a close look at a man who truly enjoys his politics: John Jordan, the Napa Valley millionaire who this month established his own super PAC, Baby Got Pac, which he is using to back Republican Sen. Marco Rubio

And Lisa Mascaro examined the recent upsurge of Sen. Ted Cruz and his campaign strategy, which depends heavily on an outpouring of conservative voters, both in the Republican primaries and, ultimately, in a general election.

That wraps up this week. On Monday, my colleague Christina Bellantoni will be back with the daily newsletter. Until then, keep track of all the developments in the 2016 campaign with our Trail Guide, at our politics page and on Twitter at @latimespolitics.

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