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Hong Kong is on fire, Iran is lurching toward war, but 2020 Democrats avoid foreign policy talk

Former vice president Joe Biden, Senator Elizabeth Warren, and Senator Kamala Harris at the third Democratic presidential primary debate on Sept. 12.Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images/AFP/Getty Images

MANCHESTER, N.H. — American consumers are getting squeezed by a trade war with China, as the Communist power moves to crack down on Hong Kong. Iran is saber-rattling, raising the prospect of a new armed conflict in the Middle East. Unrest in Central America has led to an unprecedented surge in migrants over the southern border. And this week, President Trump’s decision to pull US troops back from northern Syria, apparently abandoning the Kurds there, has led to a bipartisan rebuke.

There are many urgent foreign policy issues to talk about, but you wouldn’t know it by listening to the Democrats running for president.


At two recent campaign events in New Hampshire before he was sidelined by a heart attack, Senator Bernie Sanders discussed income inequality, student debt, taxes, housing, climate change, and prescription drugs. He never mentioned another country — except Canada, to note he liked its public health care system.

So far, the most high-profile moments in the Democratic presidential campaign have been five nationally televised debates, making up nearly 12 hours of intense discussion. A Globe analysis of transcripts found that just 42 out of 348 questions asked were about foreign policy.

But it’s not just the debate moderators who are to blame.

Polls of likely Democratic presidential primary voters found that just 5 percent say foreign affairs is the most important issue of the campaign.

And a tally of voter questions kept by Elizabeth Warren’s campaign from town halls and other events around the country this year shows just 27 of more than 600 questions were related to foreign policy.

“The reality is that most Americans understandably are concerned about whether they are earning a decent wage, worried about health care, worried about climate change, they are worried about the cost of education, criminal justice, and immigration — all which are tremendously important issues,” said Sanders in an interview with the Globe on Sept. 30. “But some way or another, we are going to have to include serious discussion of foreign policy on that agenda.”


That is probably less likely with official impeachment investigations of President Trump moving forward in the House, which could further crowd out discussion of foreign policy. To be sure, House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry centers on a conversation he had with a foreign leader, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, but the context was the 2020 US presidential election.

Seth Moulton attempted to focus his short-lived presidential campaign on President Trump’s foreign policy moves.Nic Antaya for The Boston Globe

No 2020 Democratic presidential candidate was more frustrated by the lack of attention to foreign affairs than Representative Seth Moulton of Salem, who made the issue a cornerstone of his short-lived White House bid.

“I certainly made the case that this is one of the places that we needed to take Donald Trump on directly, because it’s where he is the weakest,” said Moulton in an interview. “That is playing out now in this impeachment inquiry because it is all about our national security and his complete failure as commander in chief.”

With Moulton out of the contest, the only remaining candidate who routinely mentions foreign policy is Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii. Last week, she stood at the front of the library auditorium in Nashua, where she talked about how, as president, she would remove the country from “forever wars.”

Gabbard told the Globe afterward that “it doesn’t make sense” more candidates aren’t discussing foreign policy because it is an area, unlike passing Medicare for All, that doesn’t require congressional approval to make significant changes on day one.


Besides, she argues, the role of commander in chief is the single-most significant part of being president.

“The consequences of the decisions that both have been made and will be made are deep and far-reaching,” said Gabbard.

“It extends to our men and women in uniform to our national security to our veterans, but it actually extends to every single issue that we are facing right here at home.”

Representative Tulsi Gabbard, one of two veterans remaining in the Democratic field — the other is Mayor Pete Buttigieg — is also the only candidate who routinely mentions foreign policy at her campaign stops.Kristopher Radder/The Brattleboro Reformer via Associated Press/The Brattleboro Reformer via AP

Although foreign policy rarely dominates presidential primaries, it has played an important role in recent contests. In the run-up to the 2004 and 2008 Democratic primaries, the Iraq war was a defining issue among the top two Democratic candidates, John F. Kerry and Howard Dean, and Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, respectively.

In 2016, Clinton’s background as a former secretary of state undergirded her campaign against Sanders, even as the debate largely focused on more domestic issues.

One person not particularly surprised by the lack of focus on the issue is Daniel Drezner, an international relations specialist at Tufts University’s Fletcher School.

“The simple fact is that most Americans don’t care about foreign policy,” said Drezner. “Unless a major trade war or an actual war breaks out, the pattern is obvious that presidents typically campaign on domestic items. Then, if they have a hostile Congress, presidents typically pivot to foreign policy since they can control it.”


James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell or subscribe to his Ground Game newsletter on politics:http://pages.email.bostonglobe.com/GroundGameSignUp