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The 2008 Elections: Balancing Promises and Policy on Trade and Security

June 03, 2008 // 4:00pm5:15pm

On Tuesday, June 3, 2008, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars launched Wilson Center on the Hill, a nonpartisan forum that focuses on current issues related to international trade and security, sustainable development, and globalization. The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation is providing financial support for this program.

The event featured elections expert Charlie Cook, Editor and Publisher, The Cook Political Report, Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, Chairman and CEO of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, Republican pollster Glen Bolger, Managing Partner of Public Opinion Strategies, and national security expert Robert Litwak, Director of International Security Studies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Presidential and congressional elections are driven by an ever-changing mix of national security concerns and domestic issues that directly affect U. S. citizens. One of the challenges for candidates in the 2008 elections will be balancing policies that respond to the increasing globalization of the world economy with the domestic pressures that many U.S. voters feel in the face of job losses, a home mortgage crisis, and a depreciated U.S. dollar. On the national security front, candidates must balance strong voter pressure to end U.S. involvement in Iraq with the reality of the difficult policy choices they will confront in office, should they be elected. The panelists shared their expertise on these issues to give us a better idea of how the campaigns and the elections will unfold – and what consequences there will be for future policy.

The first panelist, Charlie Cook, began by emphasizing just how different this election will be from what most would have predicted a year or even six months ago. He noted how Senator John McCain's campaign was virtually dead a year ago and how factors such as favorable press coverage and his life story may have helped keep his campaign alive. Cook shared his view that the realistic possible outcomes of the Presidential election include a blowout for either candidate, though he believes 2008 is more likely to be another very close election. He summarized his outlook, saying "we don't know what is going to happen." In later discussion with the audience, Cook responded to a question about the issue of free trade in the campaign by referencing a statement by former Clinton Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, a strong advocate for "free trade", that the United States cannot proceed any further down the road of free trade until Americans themselves feel more secure and confident – in healthcare, the economy, and their futures.

Glen Bolger agreed with Mr. Cook by saying that it is "really difficult to project what is going to happen in this election." Bolger did, however, assess the extent to which trade will be an issue in the election: it will be important as a subset of the larger issue of the economy, which will be one of the primary issues driving voters this year. He indicated that the polls consistently show that most people believe that globalization is bad, and that by a 2-to-1 ratio voters believe that foreign trade hurts the United States, rather than helps it economically. He noted, however, that most people are not sure how trade affects them personally. Given that voters are driven by the issues they believe affect them most directly, Bolger predicted that foreign trade is not likely to be a key factor in many elections unless candidates are able to convince voters that free trade is a driving force behind the weakening economy and job loss.


Continuing on the idea of the unpredictability of this election, Stan Greenberg said that "this election is going to be an earthquake." He noted that polls by his organization, some done in conjunction with Glen Bolger's firm, indicate strong trends in voters' views on economic, national security and other key issues. Greenberg also noted the significant changes that we are now seeing as a result of the internet, including dramatic increases in political fundraising over the internet as well as higher levels of voter turnout. Greenberg shared the results of a recent poll done by DemocracyCorps on national security and the election. The poll shows that voters place more confidence in John McCain to build a strong military, but that they favor Barack Obama when asked whose positions they prefer on key national security issues such as the war in Iraq, the overall war against terrorism, and in rebuilding U.S. relations with key allies. In addition, the poll shows that national security does not appear to be the primary issue driving voter decisions. Rather, the polls indicate that the economy and general leadership qualities are more important to voters than specific national security concerns. Greenberg explained his view that, based upon a comparison of candidate messages on national security, Democrats will choose to engage on issues such as Iraq and energy dependence. He believes that by addressing these issues directly, Democrats can easily change the dynamic of this election.

Moving to more specific security issues, Iraq, Iran, and China are three major factors in the debate over national security. Dr. Robert Litwak said that Iran's nuclear programs, withdrawal from Iraq, and China's rise as a great power are really at the forefront of our security concerns. In this post 9/11 and post Iraq world, Dr. Litwak thinks that the United States will be tested by how we mitigate threats, how we protect ourselves, and how we interact with international institutions. He stressed that international institutions will have to "step up" to deal with security issues if the United States does not continue to act outside of them. He thinks the key issue in this election is "how do we manage this tension?"

Although each of our panelists had their own view on what the key issues would be in this election, they all agreed with the uncertainty that lies ahead. National security and international trade as it fits into the broader U.S. economic situation will be highly debated, but what form that discussion will take or who will come out on top is very hard to predict.

Drafted by Elizabeth Byers, Wilson Center on the Hill Program

 

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