John Rash
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CNN wanted conflict.

But it didn’t seem as interested in armed conflict, or global diplomacy or in international issues in general during the two Democratic debates it moderated this week. In fact, foreign policy seemed, well, foreign, even though it may ultimately be the most profound presidential responsibility.

Instead, after the news network introduced the presidential prospects like prize fighters, they were spurred to spar on domestic issues before foreign policy was raised deep into the debate.

And even then, questions were disproportionally asked of Tulsi Gabbard and Pete Buttigieg, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, respectively. Not every candidate — including front-runners who soon could become commander-in-chief — had a chance to answer, depriving both viewers and voters.

That’s a loss for the country, considering how much a president presides over, or at least significantly influences, international matters — and even how to consider them, as evidenced by a new Pew Research Center poll released on Tuesday, the first day of the debates.

Headlined “Climate Change and Russia are Partisan Flashpoints in Public’s Views of Global Threats,” the poll reflects how in today’s deeply divided society, politics often starts, not stops, at the water’s edge.

For instance, climate change is viewed as “a major threat to the well-being of the United States” by 84% of Democrats or Democratic-leaning voters. Conservatives, conversely, aren’t convinced: Only 27% of Republicans and Republican-leaning voters agree.

The debate drilled down on differences between Democratic approaches to the problem, including some good give-and-take on the Green New Deal between Elizabeth Warren and John Delaney. But the discussion could have included questions on how to convince congressional Republicans representing the doubters and deniers on the threat’s alacrity.

There’s a sharp partisan divide on Russia, too. Overall, 26% say Russia is an “adversary,” 44% call the country a “serious problem, but not an adversary,” and 26% “do not think of Russia as a problem.”

That last category in particular has shifted. In April 2016, 29% of Republicans/Lean Republican and Democrats/Lean Democrat did not consider Russia a problem. By July of this year, the Republican number had risen to 38%, while the Democratic number had dwindled to 14%.

But Russia was rarely referenced in the debates, and mostly in musing on other issues.

Kirstin Gillibrand, for instance, mentioned the country in the context of climate change. “We wanted to have a space race with Russia,” she said. “Why not have a green energy race with China?”

Tulsi Gabbard said in her closing statement that, “Now, Donald Trump and warmongering politicians in Washington have failed us. They continue to escalate tensions with other nuclear-armed countries like Russia and China and North Korea, starting a new Cold War, pushing us closer and closer to the brink of nuclear catastrophe.”

(Amy Klobuchar mentioned the president pulling out of “the Russian nuclear agreement,” too.)

Meanwhile, Cory Booker pointed to Moscow’s complicity in voter suppression: “We lost the state of Michigan because everybody from Republicans to Russians were targeting the suppression of African-American voters.”

But no candidates were queried about the Kremlin’s meddling in Western Europe, including sparking crises in Crimea, Eastern Ukraine and Georgia, its immoral support of the homicidal Assad regime in Syria, or its increasing cohesion with China’s challenge to the global order.

Overall, 54% consider China’s “power and influence” a “major threat,” Pew reported, a rise of eight percentage points in just two years, perhaps due to presidential rhetoric, as well as administrative actions like Thursday’s announcement that the Trump administration will impose an additional 10% tariff on another $300 billion worth of Chinese goods.

Trade with China and trade pacts in general were generally denigrated by nearly every Democratic candidate, many of whom sounded more like the current president presiding over trade disputes than the previous one who fronted free-trade agreements with Pacific and European Union nations.

“This is what I don’t understand,” Delaney said. “President Trump wants to build physical walls and beats up on immigrants. Most of the folks running for president want to build economic walls to free trade and beat up on President Obama. I’m the only one running for president who actually supports the Trans-Pacific Partnership.”

Joe Biden, as Obama’s vice president, once supported it, too. But even he equivocated, saying he’d renegotiate it, and then oddly touted the TPP as a way to counter a rising China in an inconsistency echoing Hillary Clinton’s cave on a pact she promoted as secretary of state.

Notably, the trade debate lens was mostly focused on economics, and not the geostrategic advantages of multilateral agreements.

And despite the relentless rhetoric from Trump and many Democratic candidates trashing trade pacts, the public views it differently: 65% say free-trade agreements between the U.S. and other countries have “been a good thing for the United States” while 56% say increased tariffs “have been a bad thing.”

Both figures have risen since 2017, suggesting the public’s perspective is closer to economists than politicians.

Another public perception jump regards Iran’s potential nuclear program: 57% now see it as a “major threat.”

That came a day after the White House imposed sanctions on Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister who negotiated the 2015 nuclear deal the U.S. abrogated. This action may make it even harder to solve the spiraling crisis diplomatically.

That fact wasn’t a top topic at the debates, leading a pleading Bill de Blasio to implore it be explored. “We didn’t talk about Iran,” de Blasio said, twice.

“Please,” responded CNN’s Don Lemon.

“We’re on the march to war in Iran right now, and we blew right by it,” de Blasio said.

“Please mayor — the rules,” Lemon said. “Please follow the rules.”

Ah yes, the rules. Or at least as CNN and the Democratic National Committee wrote them.

But what kind of rules don’t encourage — indeed, require — every candidate, including and especially front-runners, to address an issue as profound as a run-up to war?

Warren and Steve Bullock did have a brief exchange on a nuclear no-first-use policy. Such a substantive discussion could have had greater impact if each candidate was asked to share their perspective on such an important matter.

That’s the kind of conflict CNN should have shed more light on, instead of trying to generate heat between the candidates themselves.

John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.