Deval Patrick, the former governor of Massachusetts, became the latest latecomer to the 2020 presidential campaign when he entered the fray last week. At the time of this writing, he does not have very many clear policy positions, or even a campaign website. But anyone running for president—even someone who’s still on the honeymoon period of his announcement—should expect to be asked tough policy questions, especially on important issues like nuclear weapons. Was Patrick prepared? Well, not really.
In a video circulating on social media, Jeremy Love, who identifies himself as a board member of New Hampshire Peace Action, approaches Patrick and starts to ask him about a no-first-use policy in the United States. Here’s how it went down.
First, Love sets up his question and gets as far as the phrase “nuclear proliferation” before Patrick interrupts. Before even hearing the question, Patrick thinks Love is going to ask about nuclear power. But the word “proliferation” should have been an obvious signal that the question is about weapons, not energy.
Next, Love clarifies himself and gets to the question: Would you support the bill circulating in Congress that would make no first use the explicit policy of the United States? (Though Obama considered no-first-use, current US policy reserves the right to use nuclear weapons first.) Before answering, Patrick name-drops former US Sen. Sam Nunn. That’s a good move, given Nunn’s laudable work on reducing the threat of nuclear weapons.
But then, in formulating his response, Patrick tosses out the term “loose nukes,” which doesn’t really make sense in the context of the question. Loose nukes is a reference to nuclear security—keeping nuclear materials from getting into the wrong hands. That’s an important issue, but not germane to the question of US policy on launching a first strike.
After a little more nudging about no first use, Patrick responds, “Well don’t you have to bring basically all major players into that?” Again, this makes no sense. While some analysts and policymakers have faulted certain arms control agreements for not involving China, a no-first-use policy isn’t about making an agreement with other countries. Plus, as Love points out, China adopted a no-first-use policy decades ago.
Overall, Patrick is woefully uninformed about what is a hugely important—dare I say existential—issue. But he’s not alone: A whole slew of 2020 candidates have either pleaded ignorance on certain nuclear policies or given answers that were borderline incomprehensible. In 2016 things were hardly different. In a debate with Hillary Clinton, then-candidate Donald Trump made two contradictory statements on this issue in almost the same breath, saying both that he would “certainly not do a first strike” and that he “can’t take anything off the table.”
The next Democratic presidential debate is on Wednesday evening. If we’ve learned anything from the debates, it’s that disproportionate attention to one or two issues, such as healthcare or immigration, has driven candidates to put serious thought into their own stance on those issues. If the moderators can carve out 10 minutes for a question or three on America’s nuclear weapons policies, it would mark a welcome change.