By David Lauter and Evan Halper, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)
WASHINGTON — The massacre in San Bernardino, Calif., now being investigated as a terrorist attack, has reshaped the political debate in an election that strategists in both parties had thought would be fought primarily over domestic policy.
But as President Barack Obama spoke from the Oval Office to the nation on Sunday, and as the candidates seeking to replace him sought to recalibrate their positions, all sides faced a central problem: The nature of the attack defies the solutions that either party has been offering.
Because the shooting rampage does not appear to have been centrally directed or planned, a more intense assault on Islamic State’s positions in Iraq and Syria, as Republicans have advocated in recent months, might have little impact on preventing recurrences.
And because the attackers purchased their weapons legally after going through the required background checks, the preferred Democratic response of expanding the background-check system to cover additional sales has little relevance.
In the hours after Obama’s speech, Republicans criticized it for lacking any dramatic innovation.
“No new plan, just a half-hearted attempt to defend and distract,” tweeted House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.
“Is that all there is?” was Donald Trump’s response.
In reality, that criticism could be leveled at both parties, both in regard to defeating Islamic State in its bases in Iraq and Syria and, even more so, in trying to prevent attacks inspired by the group’s propaganda. If anyone has a big idea for making the country safer, it has yet to surface.
Both sides have offered some smaller proposals such as tightening the process for getting a visa to enter the U.S., an idea Obama supported in his Oval Office speech.
Democrats have pushed to ban gun purchases by people on terrorism watch lists. Republicans’ refusal to vote for that idea, which is opposed by the National Rifle Association, has given Democrats a new talking point, and Obama stressed it once more.
But mostly, Obama’s goal was to lay out what his administration is already doing, reflecting the belief in the White House that many Americans are not aware of what his approach is. His language was designed to soothe and reassure.
He tried to convince voters both that he has an effective strategy — something that a majority currently does not believe — and that his approach will make the U.S. safer without requiring the country be “drawn once more into a long and costly ground war,” which he argued would be unsustainable and probably counterproductive.
He also stressed the need for national unity, devoting a large part of his speech to the importance of cooperation between the government and Muslim communities, an implicit rebuke to Trump, who has since last month’s Paris attacks repeatedly called for “tracking” Muslims.
For the candidates seeking to step into the Oval Office, the imperative has been somewhat different: to convince voters that they are prepared to lead the country at a time of peril.
So far, that dynamic mostly appears to have bolstered the front-runners in both parties: Trump and Hillary Clinton.
The specter of terrorism linked to an immigrant from the Middle East and her American-born husband plays directly into issues Trump has spent the last five months emphasizing: concerns about immigration and contempt for what he calls “political correctness” that he says has harmed the government’s ability to keep the country safe.
On Sunday, Trump said he would consider the idea of tracking American Muslims to find those who may have been radicalized.
“You have people that have to be tracked. If they’re Muslims, they’re Muslims. But you have people that have to be tracked,” he said on CBS’ Face the Nation.
“I’m not playing on fears. I’m playing on common sense,” he said. “I would go after a lot of people.”
Other GOP hopefuls have been forced to respond to him.
Some have sought to outbid Trump in tough rhetoric, as Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas did Saturday with what appeared to be a reference to using nuclear weapons against Islamic State territory in Iraq and Syria.
“I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we’re going to find out,” he said at a conservative forum in Iowa.
Others have tried the difficult balance of rebuking Trump while still trying to copy some of his appeal.
“We don’t have to target the religion,” former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said in an interview with ABC’s This Week.
“We just have to target those that have co-opted the religion and make sure that we’re fully aware of the radicalizations taking place, not just here but all around the world.”
On the Democratic side, Clinton has sought to stress her depth of experience. Her approach to the fight against terrorism is consistent with a general theme of her campaign: that she would pursue the parts of Obama’s agenda that Democratic voters like, but in a tougher, more determined manner.
In a speech Sunday, Clinton said that “the need for action is urgent” and that “the threat from radical jihadism has metastasized and become more complex.”
She also picked a new focus for demonstrating that urgency. The technology industry, she said, needs to work more closely with the government to find ways to disrupt the Islamic State’s propaganda and recruitment efforts online.
“Resolve means depriving jihadists of virtual territory just as we work to deprive them of actual territory,” she said.
“You are going to hear all the usual complaints,” she said, “freedom of speech, et cetera.” But, she added, “we are going to have to have more support from our friends in the technology world to deny (terrorists) online space.”
Clinton’s chief opponent for the nomination, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, has been left to complain about what he called a mistaken belief that “all we should focus on now, 24/7, is ISIS” to the exclusion of domestic issues.
But while the focus on terrorism may help solidify Clinton’s lead in the Democratic primary race, it may prove more difficult for her in a general election.
“In an environment of fear, where rationality has already been thrown out the window, Republicans can say anything, and a candidate with a tough-minded new approach will be very attractive to a large percentage of the electorate,” said Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. negotiator in the Middle East who is now a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington.
Clinton “has a command of these issues that is unmatched in the race,” Miller said. “But the question is whether — in this age of terror and rising doubts about Obama’s foreign policy — is it a plus or a minus?”
©2015 Tribune Co. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
Photo: U.S. Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz takes the stage during Sunday worship at the Christian Life Assembly of God Church in Des Moines, Iowa, November 29, 2015. REUTERS/Mark Kauzlarich