WASHINGTON -- In a conference call organized by the committee tasked with electing Democrats to the U.S. Senate, campaign and party staffers were encouraged by non-governmental foreign policy organizations to show as little distance as possible between their candidates and President Barack Obama, according to a source listening in on the call.
In late August, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) hosted a foreign policy briefing featuring the expertise of analysts with Third Way, the centrist Democratic think tank, and the National Security Network (NSN), a more progressive organization.
Among the insights offered by Mieke Eoyang, director of Third Way’s National Security program, and Heather Hurlburt, executive director of NSN, were that Democratic Senate candidates are naturally tied to Obama on foreign policy. That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, the call’s hosts said, according to the source, who discussed the private call under the condition of anonymity. The president’s polling on foreign policy is significantly higher than it is on economic issues.
In addition, staffers on the call were told that their candidates should stick to strong and pragmatic tones early in the campaign, by projecting the need for both "tough" and "smart" national security strategies.
Breaking from the president on foreign policy -- or entering into gratuitous debates on international matters -- was discouraged, as the hosts said it could only hurt a candidate at this point in the campaign.
"They aren't saying ignore foreign policy, but, rather, that you should engage in a way that aligns yourself with the president," the source said of the impression left by the call. "In other words, establish credibility without really saying anything."
The call, which was sponsored by the DSCC, began with a brief introduction from a committee moderator before being turned over to the experts from Third Way and NSN.
Matt Canter, a spokesman for the DSCC, called the briefing call “routine,” while explaining via email that its purpose was to connect “staff or interns at state Democratic parties and some campaigns with various experts on a variety of issues.” A source familiar with the DSCC’s briefing calls said that groups invited have ranged from across the Democratic Party’s ideological spectrum.
"We participate in any number of phone calls for a number of different organizations to educate the public, and folks who are interested, on subjects that are important or emerging," said Sean Gibbons, the communications director for Third Way, while declining to specifically address the content of the recent DSCC call. "All of our private statements on this are in line with our public views which are available on our website."
Several people described the general advice emerging from the call -- that foreign policy issues are not an ideal way for a challenger campaign to make headway -- as "common sense."
"2012 is going to be about one issue and that's the economy," one person familiar with the call said. "That's not to say that there aren't other issues that are very important, particularly to our service members and their families, but the average voter, when he steps into the booth, is going to be thinking about the economy when he pulls the lever."
Canter added that Democratic senators and candidates retain "the independence to ask tough questions when it comes to national security."
"Republican candidates say Sharia law is the greatest threat to America, that Hezbollah is giving missiles to Cuba, and that we should bomb Iran. The choice will be crystal clear on foreign policy matters," he said. "[T]he fact is that President Obama and Democrats have made the country safer, nearly eliminated al Qaeda, forged a path to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, and reset relations with the world."
Despite Obama's successes, not every prospective Democratic senator may be willing to just avoid undue criticism of the president when it comes to foreign policy. Obama's policies on the war in Afghanistan, the military prison in Guantanamo and extrajudicial assassinations have frustrated many progressive voters.
Phil Walzak, spokesman for the Senate campaign of Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), told The Huffington Post that Baldwin intended to make clear her divergence from President Obama on at least one issue: the Afghanistan troop withdrawal.
"She would like to see a more accelerated timetable," Walzak said. "There are questions about what is the foreign policy posture of the United States. We're coming up here on the 10th anniversary of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. Tammy has said it's time to bring the troops home."
When Baldwin released a video announcing the launch of her campaign, she said one of her priorities in the Senate would be to "bring our troops home from Afghanistan." But Walzak also conceded that the economy is still going to dominate the upcoming election cycle.
"Clearly jobs and the economy remain the number one, two, three, four issue," Walzak said. "But there are also significant foreign policy issues out there, and Afghanistan may be one of the larger ones out there. It comes up, and I think Tammy has some clearly articulated point of views on that issue."
If a candidate does use disagreement with the president on foreign policy matters as a prominent feature of his or her campaign, there might not be much to gain from it. In a recent CBS News/New York Times poll, 59 percent of respondents labeled the economy as the “most important problem facing this country today.” Eight percent gave the budget deficit and national debt that label. Just 2 percent said the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan deserved top billing among problems to address.
"Jobs are what you hear everywhere," said Adam Sullivan, chief of staff for Rep. Martin Heinrich's (D-N.M.) Senate campaign. Sullivan, like Walzak, was not on the DSCC call. "Jobs, economy -- that kind of stuff is what we're hearing."