Sanders: failing commander-in-chief test, or beating Clinton at it?

Wisconsin Democrats say Bernie Sanders would make a better commander in chief than Hillary Clinton. That shows the downside of her extensive record. 

Mark Kauzlarich/Reuters
Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders boards his campaign airplane in Laramie, Wyo., on April 6.

One question from the exit poll of Wisconsin Democrats jumped from the page: “Who do you think would make the best commander in chief?”

The winner was Bernie Sanders, with 51 percent. Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of State, got 47 percent.

That, on its face, seems counterintuitive. After all, Mrs. Clinton was secretary of State for four years, spent six years as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and before that traveled the world as first lady. Senator Sanders, in contrast, has devoted his decades in politics almost exclusively to domestic affairs.

When asked in the Democratic debates to comment on national security, Sanders usually defaults to criticizing the Iraq War – Clinton voted for it, he voted against it – and then pivots to the more comfortable terrain of income inequality and breaking up the big banks. 

Now comes an interview Sanders gave Monday to The New York Daily News editorial board, after which he was accused of being “out of his depth” on a range of policies, including some on national security. Others called the questions unfair attempts at “gotcha.”  

When asked how he would handle negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians over settlements – namely, what did he want Israel to do “in terms of pulling back” – Sanders punted: “You’re asking me a very fair question, and if I had some paper in front of me, I would give you a better answer.”

On the self-described Islamic State, when asked where a President Sanders would imprison and interrogate a captured IS commander, he said: “Actually I haven’t thought about it a whole lot.”

In a question on drone policy, Sanders was asked what he thought about a decision by President Obama to take the authority for drone attacks away from the CIA and give it to the US military – which had allegedly caused difficulties in zeroing in on IS leaders. 

“Do you believe that he’s got the right policy there?” an editor asked.

“I don’t know the answer to that,” Sanders responded.

The premise of the question was faulty, according to the Huffington Post. The decision to shift authority for drone attacks had been quietly reversed last year.

But Sanders didn’t know enough to go after the premise of the question. Sanders supporters, and some in the media, have come to his defense over the handling of the entire interview. 

But even in defending Sanders, The Huffington Post still acknowledges that he “is famously uncomfortable talking about foreign policy; it just doesn’t get his blood going like inequality.”

Which brings us back to the issue of that exit poll question. Why would a majority of Wisconsin Democrats say that Sanders would make a better commander in chief than Clinton?

Some Sanders supporters did say they thought Clinton would be better. Sanders beat Clinton by 13 points overall in the Wisconsin Democratic primary – 56 percent to 43 percent – but on the commander in chief question, he beat her by only 4 points in the exit poll.

Perhaps those voters were considering her experience, or even line up with her foreign policy approach, which leans more toward military intervention than does that of Sanders – or that of Mr. Obama, for that matter. Last fall, for example, Clinton broke with the Obama White House and called for creation of a no-fly zone over Syria, which Sanders opposed.

And so Clinton has had to tread carefully when trying to use her deep foreign policy experience as a campaign asset.

“In an election where ‘establishment’ has become a dirty word, emphasizing Clinton’s experience highlights a staid, wonkish style out of touch with the frenetic mood captured in the bumper-sticker movement of ‘Feel the Bern,’” wrote Molly O’Toole at Foreign Policy in January. “It also exposes vulnerabilities in that very record she touts, disrupting the careful balance Clinton has struck between owning Obama’s foreign-policy successes, like his landmark nuclear accord with Iran, while distancing herself from the handling of Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and Libya, where she backed more hawkish policies that have failed to bring stability to any of the countries.”

It’s also worth noting that in the only other major exit poll this year where Democratic voters were asked the “commander in chief” question, in Ohio, Clinton beat Sanders handily – 57 percent to 40 percent – just as she was beating him in the Ohio primary, 57 percent to 43 percent.

As is often the case with politicians, once a voter decides to back him or her, the candidate’s policies and competencies usually get a thumbs up as well. Or vice versa. With Sanders, economic policy is the main driver of the campaign. So for some of his supporters, the answer on commander in chief might have been a bit of a throw-away.

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