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Election 2020: Presidential Campaigns and the Politics of US Foreign Policy

October 13, 2020

The Honorable Mark William Lippert

Kori Schake, director of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI)

Randy Scheunemann, Strategic Counselor at the Halifax International Security Forum

Moderated by Hal Brands, Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor and Derek Chollet, executive vice president and senior advisor for security and defense policy at The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) 

The Johns Hopkins SAIS Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs hosted a discussion with four former campaign advisors from President Barack Obama, Senator John McCain, and Senator John Edwards’ campaigns, who shared insights on the implications of the 2020 election on foreign policy. They also discussed their experiences working on foreign policy in presidential campaigns, and how campaigns shape candidates’ policies once they are in office.

Speaking on behalf of the Obama 08’ campaign, Mark Lippert, former foreign policy advisor, noted how the small, unconventional style of the Obama campaign helped to play to the candidates’ strengths. Lippert further noted, that allowing candidates to enunciate their vision over being forcefully guided by advisors, in addition to powerful narratives and slogans, was the key to the Obama campaign’s success.

Randy Scheunemann, former foreign policy aide, to late Senator John McCain, stated that the interpersonal relationship between him and the Senator was instrumental in convincing him to come onboard. Scheunemann further stressed, how since “modern campaigns are more about messages than policy,” McCain’s support of the Iraq war and weak fundraising ultimately cost him the nomination. He like Lippert, stressed the importance of working for someone you believe and can see yourself in.

In tandem, the importance of personal and campaign evolution was stressed. Kori Schake, former foreign policy advisor to the 2008 McCain campaign, reiterated the importance of foreign policy as a “gateway validator” showing the general public how “thoughtful” a candidate is. Schake, commenting on the current political climate, stressed that the U.S. Military and SCOTUS should not be politicized as that would create hyper-partisan factions and erode public trust in institutions. Ultimately, Chollet, reminded the audience that “everyone is making it up as they go,” and that campaigns like all of human life is an evolutionary process.