Democratic foreign policy strategists are hot commodities again.
For the past two years, they have been frozen out under President Donald Trump. And during the 2016 election cycle, Hillary Clinton held a virtual monopoly on the Democratic foreign policy establishment.
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But now, with nearly two dozen Democrats running for president, these experts say their phones are ringing with inquiries. Several foreign policy thinkers told POLITICO they had already been approached by three or more campaigns, or people affiliated with campaigns, to gauge their interest. With relatively few of the Democratic candidates having significant foreign policy experience, these advisers are especially desirable hires.
“The process at this stage is kind of like a mix between a pickup basketball game and Afghan tribal politics,” said Brian Katulis, a foreign affairs analyst with the Center for American Progress, who has yet to commit to a candidate.
“It’s a seller’s market,” added a Democratic foreign policy strategist, who, like most people contacted for this story, requested anonymity for reasons including campaign rules. “We’re constantly having this discussion within the campaign I work with about who’s already taken.”
With over a year left until the election, many left-leaning foreign affairs specialists are wary of committing to one candidate or being public about it. Several said they’re willing to offer advice to any White House hopeful who requests it, and some are affiliated with think tanks or other organizations that have special rules about election-related work.
Plus, there’s the reality at this stage that a candidate you sign up with will fizzle out fast, and that you could endanger your chances of joining another campaign or getting a job in a future Democratic administration if you’re too vocal about supporting one person.
Slowly and quietly, however, many of the candidates are building stables of favored foreign policy advisers — structures sure to grow in the months ahead. The need for such an apparatus is especially acute for the many Democratic candidates with sparse foreign policy experience.
Among the contenders, former Vice President Joe Biden is thought to have a major lead on foreign policy. That’s due in part to his close ties to Obama administration alumni, his stint in Congress as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the relationships he’s built over the years with numerous world leaders.
Biden also has the luxury of turning — unofficially — to people at the Penn Biden Center, a global affairs institution established at the University of Pennsylvania after he left office. The center’s leaders include figures who served with Biden under then-President Barack Obama, including former deputy secretary of State Antony Blinken.
“Vice President Biden’s deep qualifications and close relationships with world leaders equip him to repair our standing in the world on Day 1. … He’s grateful to have a strong bench of trusted advisers ready to do this critical work,” Biden campaign spokesman Andrew Bates said in a statement.
Sen. Kamala Harris of California also has emerged as a favorite among former Obama administration officials, especially seasoned ones who worked for Clinton when she was secretary of State. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, too, has drawn notice from that crowd.
Clinton’s most prominent foreign policy hand, Jake Sullivan, has yet to officially align himself with a specific candidate. But several younger foreign policy gurus in his generation, figures in their 30s and 40s, are eyeing Pete Buttigieg, according to people familiar with the situation.
The 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Ind., speaks multiple languages and has spent time abroad, but he’s still largely a blank slate on foreign policy, meaning whoever gets his ear could have tremendous influence — an appealing prospect for up and comers.
Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who is in his 40s, holds a similar appeal. O’Rourke, too, has limited foreign policy experience, but can boast of having served on the House Armed Services Committee and representing El Paso, a city on the border with Mexico.
One candidate who learned the hard way that he can’t ignore foreign policy is Bernie Sanders, the independent senator from Vermont who challenged Clinton in the 2016 primary.
In that cycle, Sanders preferred to focus on domestic and economic issues, prompting claims that he was a global affairs lightweight. It didn’t help that Clinton managed to lock down the loyalties of hundreds of foreign policy experts on the left, leaving him few options.
In 2017, Sanders brought on to his staff Matt Duss, a progressive who has helped the senator lay out a more comprehensive foreign policy vision. At this stage, Sanders’ campaign has a “solid core” of around 10 foreign policy advisers he turns to regularly, an aide to the senator said.
So far, there’s been little bitterness among the Democratic campaigns as they cast about for foreign policy talent.
Democrats across the ideological spectrum are largely united on broad themes such as the need to fix damaged ties with U.S. allies. That sense of unity is, for now, why many foreign policy experts are comfortable offering advice to more than one candidate.
“There’s not really a competitiveness at this point yet — the field is just so wide and so diverse and so up for grabs,” the Democratic foreign policy strategist said.
“There’s a higher demand [for advisers], but it’s still kumbaya,” added a Democratic former national security official.
It’s a notable contrast to the 2008 primary battle between Obama and Clinton, which campaign observers described as being especially ugly. Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, dominated the Democratic Party at the time, and Obama was seen as a long shot. The Clinton side hinted that anyone who joined Obama’s team was giving up a shot at working for her future administration.
The two camps were especially divided over the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which Clinton voted to authorize while in the Senate. Obama used that foreign policy issue to separate himself from Clinton, ultimately winning the primary.
This time, not even aides to Biden, who leads many polls, are making such threats — and his campaign says it has no intention of ever doing so.
Because Democrats view toppling Trump as the paramount goal, many have teamed up to create advocacy organizations such as Foreign Policy for America and National Security Action to help maintain some sense of unity even as the race heats up.
National Security Action, for instance, offers foreign policy strategy and advice to all of the campaigns. The goal is to help Democrats avoid damaging internecine warfare on the left’s more divisive foreign policy topics, such as the U.S.-Israel relationship, military spending and the war in Afghanistan.
At this stage in the presidential primaries, campaigns are focusing more on domestic issues. But the strength of the economy may push Democrats to pivot to overseas controversies, such as Trump’s desire to withdraw troops from Syria or his ongoing support for Saudi Arabia’s military actions in Yemen.
While campaigns may have one or two paid foreign policy advisers, most of these roles are unpaid.
Volunteer advisers churn out position papers and talking points, often as part of working groups that focus on a region, such as the Middle East, or a theme, such as human rights. The lawmakers who run for president have the advantage of being able to, informally at least, tap the expertise in the congressional staffs.
The candidates often require staffers and volunteers to sign nondisclosure agreements, limiting what they can say about campaigns’ internal dynamics. But some of the experts may be tapped as surrogates who can publicly criticize rival candidates at key moments, such as primary debates.
Under the Clinton campaign’s wide umbrella in 2016, many of the volunteers wondered whether their work ever even reached the candidate. This time, it’s possible one person’s advice can influence several candidates.
“I suspect over time issues will emerge where there are differences, and that’ll start to get interesting,” said one former Obama foreign policy aide.