GOP Candidates Tout Security Chops After Paris
With renewed political focus on foreign policy and national security in the aftermath of the Paris terror attacks, the senators and governors who have struggled against an anti-establishment tide in the Republican presidential primary are now seizing the opportunity to prove their mettle.
The shift could mark an inflection point in the Republican race for the presidency, putting greater emphasis on the commander-in-chief role and drawing attention away from the domestic issues that have propelled the rise of Donald Trump and Ben Carson.
Already, the policy spotlight is intensifying. This week, debate has turned to whether the United States should accept refugees from Syria in light of the attacks. One by one, Republican governors lined up to close off their states, while congressional Republicans threatened to cut off money for any Syrian refugees.
The increased focus on policy could have particular implications for Jeb Bush, who is hoping to revive his lagging campaign by touting his experience. In an interview on “Meet the Press” over the weekend, Bush said the United States should “declare war” in its efforts to destroy ISIS. On the other hand, the shadow of his brother’s presidency still looms.
Bush will talk about his vision for the war against ISIS and how to build a military to handle the growing threats during a speech at the Citadel in Charleston, S.C., on Wednesday.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who has made his foreign policy credentials a pillar of his campaign, is also capitalizing on the potential shift in the GOP race. Rubio has urged more targeted airstrikes and an increase in special operations forces on the ground. But, unlike Bush and other rivals, Rubio hasn’t explicitly called for boots on the ground. During an interview with ABC News, the Florida senator called for “significant American engagement” but wouldn’t say whether that would entail ground troops.
Nor is Rubio comparing his foreign policy credentials to those of Trump or Carson. “I don't think this is time to be doing political analysis on all of this,” Rubio said when asked if it would be difficult for them to succeed on foreign policy.
But other candidates are gamely engaging on that question. In an interview with the Washington Post on Monday, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said, “It helps to have experience with these tools [for combating terrorism], not just theory.” Christie is playing up his work as a former U.S. attorney, including having appeared before the Foreign Intelligence Service Court.
To be sure, stressing foreign policy experience is not a novel tactic in this or any presidential primary. Carly Fiorina has boasted for months that she knows “more world leaders on the stage today than anyone running, with the possible exception of Hillary Clinton.” John Kasich often touts his 18 years on the House Armed Services Committee. Rick Santorum told CNN in May that he has “experience that nobody has on national security.”
In an op-ed for National Review last month, Bush sought to draw a contrast with Trump on foreign policy, calling his policy prescriptions “dangerous.”
“Let’s be clear: Donald Trump simply doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” Bush wrote.
Trump and Carson have responded to the attacks with strong rhetoric. For his part, Trump vowed to “bomb the s--- out of ISIS.” And Carson, in letters to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan, urged Congress to halt public funding to settle Syrian refugees.
But both men have shown their vulnerability and lack of deeper understanding in discussing foreign policy and national security. In an interview Sunday with Fox News, Carson could not name an ally he would include in a coalition to fight ISIS.
Nor is either candidate committing serious campaign resources to beefing up his foreign policy footprint. Trump promised in September that he would make an announcement “very soon” regarding his national security team; two months later, no announcement has been made.
But the Republican electorate in this election has not been focused on foreign policy; polling has shown that voters rank the economy and jobs as the most important issues. Nor has the experience argument resonated. Respondents to a CNN/ORC poll in September ranked Trump as the candidate most qualified to tackle foreign policy issues, followed by Rubio and Bush.
While the public is growing more concerned about terrorism, suggesting foreign policy will play a key role in the election, Americans are still concerned about engaging in another war. A Reuters poll taken after the Paris attacks found 63 percent of Americans feared a terrorist attack could happen at home. Also, 60 percent think the United States should be doing more to defeat ISIS. However, roughly 65 percent opposed sending American Special Forces to the region.
The wild card now is whether a renewed focus on national security might cause Republican voters to be more attuned to the candidates’ messages on foreign policy and shift their support as a result.
Bush has argued that as the primaries near, the presidential race is going to start to reward experience, temperament, and proven governing abilities. The new focus on foreign policy in light of the Paris attacks, he believes, only underscored that point. “If you listen to some of the candidates speaking about Syria, for example, they're all over the map,” he said of his rivals on Sunday. Asked if he trusted Donald Trump or Ben Carson to be commander in chief, Bush admitted: “The words that I hear them speaking give me some concern.”
Still, the former Florida governor often can’t talk about foreign policy without mention of his brother’s tenure. While Bush has set out as his own man, he has also taken in many of the same policy advisers from that administration. Bush has argued before that the Obama administration’s withdrawal of troops from Iraq helped create a vacuum that allowed ISIS to fester. But he has also tried to argue that the challenges now are very different from the challenges of 15 years ago, and that “the focus ought to be on the future, not the past.”
Unlike his brother, Bush is describing the fight against ISIS terrorists as a war against “radical Islamic terrorism,” as are other Republicans. George W. Bush often refrained from using the term to make clear the United States was not at war with the Islamic faith. President Obama takes a similar approach.
During a press conference at the G-20 summit in Turkey on Monday, Obama invoked the former president Bush, while scolding GOP opposition to accepting Muslim Syrian refugees in the United States. Jeb Bush has called for helping Christian refugees only.
“When I hear political leaders suggesting that there would be a religious test,” Obama said, “that’s shameful. That’s not American. That’s not who we are. We don’t have religious tests to our compassion.”
However, Bush’s stance on accepting refugees from Syria now stands out as one of the more inclusive positions among Republican presidential candidates.
Bush has argued that while the United States has a responsibility to help, “We should focus our efforts, as it relates to refugees, on the Christians that are being slaughtered,” he told CNN.
Ted Cruz, the son of a Cuban refugee, has said he will introduce legislation soon that would ban Muslim refugees from Syria from entering the United States. Sen. Rand Paul introduced legislation that would prohibit all Syrian refugees.
Christie told Hugh Hewitt’s radio program he would not allow Syrian refugees—not even young orphans—to come to the United States because he does not trust the Obama administration to properly vet them. Rubio is also opposed to allowing refugees to come because he believes it is impossible to properly screen them.
Even Gov. John Kasich, who is campaigning as a “compassionate conservative” and has been supportive of accepting refugees, said his state of Ohio should not accept them.
There appears to be little daylight between the politicians and the outsiders on the refugee issue. Carson has called on Congress to defund any programs that help Syrian refugees settle in the United States. Trump has said Syrian refugees already in the United States should leave.
But the larger foreign policy and national security questions will require more concrete plans from the candidates.
With a fast-changing new environment and short attention spans, it’s difficult to project how long the Paris aftermath will be center stage in the race for the White House. And it is unclear whether it will take away support from the political outsiders. Recent history shows little can deter Trump and Carson backers. But the attacks on Paris last week altered the course of history, raising serious questions about the ever-rising threat of terrorism and how the United States will address it. Candidates with political experience are likely to want the conversation to continue throughout the campaign.