The writer teaches Turkish history at Sabanci University in Istanbul. He holds an MA and PhD in history from the same university.
The race to square off with U.S. President Donald Trump on Nov. 3, 2020 is now in full gear. Once former Vice President Joseph Biden officially proclaimed his candidacy, all of the major Democratic Party candidates had entered the race. Until next summer they will attempt to sway Democratic voters across the country, and the final decision on who will represent the party against Trump will be made at the Democratic Party’s National Convention in mid-July 2020.
In our age, the U.S. presidential election cycle has expanded further and further, to the point where it now begins immediately after the midterm polls. Even though official announcements had not been made, potential candidates such as Elizabeth Warren began de facto election campaigns towards the end of last year. Since then the Democratic Party field ballooned to, at one point, more than twenty declared candidates.
Party caucuses and primaries, which are held on a state-by-state basis, will begin early next year. These contests are used to determine which candidate is the most popular in each state, but the contest’s overall trajectory is also heavily influenced by the outcomes. Especially the earliest results, which will emerge from the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 3, and the New Hampshire primary on Feb. 11, are seen as bellwethers for how the race will play out.
The current situation
As most people are aware, Joe Biden declared his candidacy in late April and immediately became the front-runner for the Democrat Party nomination. This status stems from his long experience in national politics, including previous presidential campaigns and eight years as vice president, which grants him instant name-recognition that no other candidate can match.
Essentially all opinion polls taken in the months since have indicated that Biden has a sizeable advantage over all of the other candidates, usually in the double digits. Even though that advantage seems to have shrunk somewhat in the past two months, Biden still must be considered the Democrat Party’s leading candidate. Until recently, the same polls generally showed Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren vying for second place, while California Senator Kamala Harris has moved up closer to the leading group. But Warren, on the strength of her policy proposals, now seems to be the second-place candidate ahead of Sanders.
On the other hand, a small handful of polls have indicated rising popularity for Warren and stagnating numbers for Biden; two recent polls even showed Warren and Biden in a statistical tie for the lead in Iowa.  Whether those polls are outliers remains to be seen, but a Warren victory in Iowa or New Hampshire could catapult her into the lead.
Even though Warren appears to enjoy rising popularity, the primary discussion about her campaign concerns whether she, if tabbed as the Democratic Party’s candidate, would be able to defeat Trump. That issue runs deeper than just her own merits because Hillary Clinton’s failed 2016 campaign is fresh in everyone’s minds. Warren’s reform proposals, while well-researched and backed by focused publicity, cut deeper than most anything in Clinton’s platform three years ago. The perception that Warren is too radical to gain enough mainstream support, in addition to the fact that she is a woman, have subsequently been constant themes for those questioning her candidacy.
Biden does not suffer from the perceived disadvantages that Warren does, but in the intervening months, Biden’s extensive political record has seemed to work against him as item after item from his past was dredged up for examination. In particular, Biden’s popularity with black voters was pointed to as a strength, but his record on race has not always been spotless. During the televised debates, other candidates especially attacked Biden over his past comments concerning race, suddenly turning one of his strengths into a liability. Biden also has a tendency to misspeak while talking in public, and has already committed several gaffes since declaring his candidacy.
Sanders’ popularity has faded slightly as worries about his age (78) as well as lackluster showings in the televised debates began to dent his popularity. The inflexible militancy of his (and his supporters’) political views is yet again tiring otherwise sympathetic citizens, but this time at a much earlier point in the election cycle. For the past two months, polls have consistently show decreases in Sanders’ support as other candidates garnered more media attention. In an attempt to rescue his flagging popularity, Sanders overhauled some of his campaign team two weeks ago.
Harris now seems to be the fourth most-popular candidate, but is also vying with Sanders for third. Some comments about Harris are thus in order. Harris’ given name comes from her mother’s South Asian and Tamil background, but her father is from Jamaica. After a law degree and a career in law enforcement, Harris got her political start as District Attorney in San Francisco fifteen years ago, then was elected California Attorney General. She parlayed her public stature as Attorney General into a successful run for one of California’s Senate seats in 2016.
Harris’ showing during the televised debates created a rise in popularity and name-recognition for her campaign, but in recent weeks her polling numbers have again started to recede. Her organization is now focused on trying to produce a strong showing in Iowa and/or New Hampshire in order to reinvigorate her campaign. Realistically, Harris is probably a candidate of future presidential campaigns because she is relatively young and looks to be only at the beginning of her political career on the national stage.
What about foreign policy, and especially Turkey?
Foreign policy has, from time-to-time, cropped up as a topic in the debates held by the Democratic Party contenders. But in general, foreign policy remains a topic that the candidates try to show knowledge of and then move away from as quickly as possible in order to avoid going into specifics. The U.S. course of action in Afghanistan and the nature of U.S. involvement in other societies surfaced, as did the current trade tensions between the Trump administration and Beijing, but candidate answers tended towards the superficial.
Biden, because of his experience as vice president, is the only candidate that can speak on foreign policy with authority stemming from actual political experience. Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is the only other candidate that has extensive overseas experience, which stems from his stint in the Navy and work as a contractor for McKinsey & Company. Unfortunately for Biden, his own political record again causes him problems because, as Senator from Delaware, he voted in favor of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Biden was strongly attacked on that issue during the summer debates.
In an attempt to provide the candidates a chance to elaborate on and clarify their positions regarding a variety of key foreign affairs topics, the Council on Foreign Relations (one of America’s oldest and most influential think tanks) invited the Democratic field to answer twelve questions on foreign policy, and then published those answers verbatim once they were received.  None of the questions directly refer to Turkey, but questions concerning Turkey’s region, specifically Afghanistan, the Israel-Palestine conflict, and Saudi Arabia were included. As would be expected, the candidates’ responses consist largely of vague but tough-sounding statements meant to convey a feeling that the candidate is both decisive and knowledgeable.
Let’s proceed alphabetically through the replies of the four most prominent candidates. Biden started off by stating that he will end the “Muslim ban” (Trump’s ban on immigrants from certain mostly Muslim countries) and increase the number of refugees accepted by the U.S., which is certainly good to hear. Biden also says that he will end the U.S. aid that enables Saudi Arabia to pursue its goals in Yemen and hold Riyadh responsible for its actions, but he does not include any details on exactly how he will do that. He supports a two-state solution for the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Harris, on the subject of Ukraine, promises to “… stand up to Putin in defense of democratic values, human rights, and the international rule of law,” but does not venture into how she plans to realize that assertion. She also states that she will end U.S. support that enables Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, but in this case she has her Senate voting record to back up her claim. Harris also supports the two-state solution for the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Ten of the twelve answers provided by Sanders consisted of no more than a single paragraph. Infamously, in 2016 Sanders did not even bother with a foreign policy stance; apparently, he still sees foreign policy as an afterthought. In response to the question on Saudi Arabia, he states a preference for working with democratic governments rather than authoritarian regimes; the real question on that subject is whether Sanders would be able to shrug off the heavy anti-Turkish propaganda in U.S. media to discern that Turkey is actually the best fit for his prescription. Additionally, Sanders supports a two-state solution for the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Warren’s answer to the question concerning Russia and Ukraine focuses on pursuing “… a durable strategy that strengthens the security of NATO allies threatened by a resurgent Russia,” and that also holds Russia accountable and deters further aggressive moves. Both the current and previous U.S. administrations left Turkey alone to face Russia not only across the Black Sea, but also in Syria. This means that Warren will also need to revitalize the U.S.’s regional stature and capacity for action before even getting to the strategy formulation. Her answers on Saudi Arabia and the Israel-Palestine conflict lack specifics but are meant to sound both forceful and balanced. Warren supports the two-state solution for the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Overall, foreign policy still plays a minor role in the race for the Democratic Party nomination. Because of the many serious domestic issues facing the U.S., and despite the fact that many of those issues actually have an international dimension, foreign policy will remain overshadowed by the tendentious domestic controversies playing out in American society. Hopefully, in the coming months candidates will give us more information regarding the manner they will approach Turkey and its immediate region if elected president.
A final note apropos of discussing the 2020 election season: several days ago pictures of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her husband appeared on the twitter feed of one of the Gulen cult’s most well-known fugitives now living in the U.S. Those pictures made clear that the relationship between the Clintons and Gulen’s murderous organization runs more deeply than simply that of a presidential candidate being lobbied by a special interest group. Hillary Clinton now spends her time giving speeches on democracy and human rights (refer to her twitter feed), but sees no problem in posing for chummy pictures with an unrepentant member of a deranged cult that is determined to take control of Turkey’s state institutions and extinguish its democracy, and that has killed hundreds of Turkish citizens in pursuit of that goal. For that reason, I would like to retract and apologize for any comments that I wrote downplaying Gulen’s donations to Hillary Clinton’s campaign during the 2016 race. Those who insisted that Clinton was close to Gulen’s organization and its functionaries have been proved correct. I was in error.