Democratic presidential candidates stand on stage, Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020, before a Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by CNN and the Des Moines Register in Des Moines, Iowa.

Democratic presidential candidates stand on stage, Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020, before a Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by CNN and the Des Moines Register in Des Moines, Iowa. AP / Charlie Neibergall

2020 Dems Need To Get Up To Speed on Nuclear Weapons. Fast.

Front-runners have displayed key misunderstandings, while other candidates have shied away from the topic.

Last week, U.S. voters had two opportunities to inspect the leading Democratic presidential candidate’s national security credentials. In both the Democratic debate in Iowa and the New York Times editorial board’s interview series, candidates were asked to explain their views on key aspects of nuclear weapons policy. Unfortunately, all three of the leading candidates flubbed some of their responses. For the existential sake of the country, the candidates need to get up to speed on nuclear weapons policy. Fast.

Three moments stand out from last week:

  • Despite being a leader on a number of nuclear weapons issues, including a promise to commit the United States to a No First Use doctrine, Sen. Elizabeth Warren seemed unaware of the controversial existence of U.S. nuclear weapons in Turkey. Even though the issue made headlines as recently as October.
  • Despite giving an answer that spoke eloquently of his long abhorrence of nuclear weapons, Sen. Bernie Sanders did not seem to know how many countries have nuclear weapons. The number is nine, not the eleven or twelve the senator claimed. 
  • Despite his compelling recent defense of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal he helped obtain, Vice President Joe Biden seemed to mischaracterize President Trump’s North Korea policy. Speaking of the North Koreans at the Democratic debate, he said the President “weakened the sanctions we have against them.” CNN’s fact-checkers soon rebuked the Vice President. As they put it, “Trump has not weakened the sanctions his administration has placed on North Korea to date, and has in fact ratcheted them up from the Obama administration.” 

No one is perfect, but these mistakes matter for several reasons. Nuclear weapons are the most acute national security threat we face. From Iran to North Korea, South Asia to Russia, they are still drivers of major international dangers. Any lack of clarity on such a grave topic should be alarming. But there are also more specific implications of each of the candidate’s misstatements. With tensions between the U.S. and Turkey increasing on a number of fronts, the question of whether to keep basing U.S. nuclear weapons at Incirlik is a serious one, especially when one considers that Turkey might attempt to steal them. With the 2020 Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference looming, the question of how many countries have nuclear weapons is a crucial barometer for judging the success of that agreement. And by criticizing nonexistent sanctions relief, Vice President Biden ignores the real failure of the Trump administration’s North Korea policy, which has been its inability to translate summitry into productive diplomacy. 

Clearly, the country should expect better on this important issue from the leading Democratic candidates. Moreover, it is also to the candidates’ electoral benefit to get up to speed on nuclear weapons policy. 

First, the candidates should remember that the emerging consensus within the Democratic Party on nuclear weapons issues is politically popular. All three aforementioned candidates support a No First Use policy, as do 57 percent of voters in Iowa and 73 percent of voters in New Hampshire. All three support extending key arms control agreements with Russia, like New START. They are in the company of eight in ten registered voters, including over 75 percent of Republicans. And all three prefer the diplomacy of the Iran nuclear deal to starting another endless war in the Middle East – as do the American people. 

Related: Five Questions About Nukes To Ask at the Next Debate

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Related: Democrats Retreat on Nuclear Policy

Second, nuclear policy issues are frequently used as ‘gotcha’ questions by the media. The media will keep asking questions on nuclear policy and it’s important for candidates to be ready. For instance, during the 2016 primaries the media infamously tripped candidate Trump up with a ‘gotcha’ question on the nuclear triad. Trump took the hit but recovered in the general election, by which time he had learned his way to a more coherent response

Third, nuclear issues simply aren’t going away. With tensions high from South Asia to the Korean Peninsula and Iran, the candidates will likely need to address a nuclear-related foreign policy crisis soon. Such moments can be politically decisive – there’s no faster way to solidify support than by handling a crisis well; it was only in the heat of the financial collapse of 2008 that Sen. Obama’s lead over Sen. McCain solidified. Candidates should do their homework in advance of such a moment.

The three front-runners have each made important contributions to preventing the use and spread of nuclear weapons, although voters could use more policy specifics. Unlike some of their competitors, they have also had the courage to answer pressing questions about nuclear weapons. But with the Iowa caucus just days away, they need to do more.