“We’re talking about ruthless things tonight,” co-moderator Hugh Hewitt said deep in the second debate.
Indeed, former Senator Rick Santorum kicked off the affair by asserting, “We have entered World War III,” setting the tone for a pair of fractious, grim GOP debates focussed on national security and terrorism. Questions touched on the fight against ISIS, turmoil in the Middle East, the bombing of civilians, nuclear proliferation in Iran and North Korea, border security, immigration, and the conflict between domestic surveillance and civil liberties.
Republican candidates for president met at the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas Tuesday night for their fifth batch of debates. As before, the affair was divided into two movements: a primetime spectacle for the nine candidates leading in the polls and a warm-up act to collect the remaining four. The mainstage show included Donald Trump, Senator Ted Cruz from Texas, Senator Marco Rubio from Florida, Dr. Ben Carson, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, New Jersey governor Chris Christie, Carly Fiorina, Ohio governor John Kasich, and Senator Rand Paul from Kentucky. The undercard debate included former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, former New York governor George Pataki, Senator Lindsey Graham from South Carolina, and former Senator Rick Santorum from Pennsylvania. (Jim Gilmore, former Virginia governor, has not officially suspended his campaign yet. Though with his poll numbers at rock bottom, he was not invited to Tuesday’s debate, or indeed any of the three previous debates.)
Senator Lindsey Graham, returning after an absence from both November debates due to his low poll numbers, began by touting his latest trip to Iraq (his 36th to the region, he said), claiming — as he has previously — that his military and foreign policy experience made him uniquely qualified to be a wartime president, which he insisted the next commander-in-chief would be. He asserted more than once that another 9/11 was being planned at this very moment.
George Pataki opened by mentioning the bomb threat that shut down the Los Angeles public schools Tuesday — apparently a hoax — as a sign that Americans had every right to be concerned about their security. He closed by reminding viewers that he was governor of New York on 9/11 and encouraged Americans to visit the 9/11 Memorial and the new World Trade Center 1 building (which he referred to by its old name, the “Freedom Tower”), as they were testaments to the country’s perseverance.
The Scourge of “Political Correctness”
The candidates routinely described how “political correctness” — with they characterized as an enfeebled sensitivity to the feelings of Muslims at home and abroad — had hindered America’s ability to protect its citizens, hobbling domestic surveillance efforts and ennobling international terrorism by refusing to identify it precisely.
Every Republican agreed that the foreign policies of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, his first secretary of state and the leading Democratic candidate for president, had failed egregiously to protect Americans from Islamic terrorism. But Cuz suggested that the main failure was “not a lack of competence; it is political correctness.”
“Political correctness,” he asserted, “is killing people.” Had the Department of Homeland Security been permitted to monitor American Muslims’ Facebook activity without interference, he said, the Dec. 2 attack in San Bernardino and 2013 Boston Marathon bombing might have been prevented. No Republican running for president, Cruz said, would be a “prisoner to political correctness”
(During his Dec. 6 address, President Obama told Americans that the terrorists responsible for the San Bernardino attacks “had gone down the dark path of radicalization, embracing a perverted interpretation of Islam that calls for war against America and the West.” Despite the president’s language, the candidates routinely condemned him for having failed to identify the threat precisely as “radical Islamic terrorism,” suggesting multiple times that political correctness was to blame.)
“All jihadists are Muslims. We need to stop worrying about offending some people and worry about defending our country,” Santorum said. He also brushed aside the idea that targeting Islam was in any way religious discrimination, saying: “Islam is not just a religion; it is also a political governing structure.”
Huckabee said that if a prospective employer could look at a job candidate’s drunken photos from frat parties on Facebook, certainly the government ought to be able to monitor the social media activities of immigrants. Mosques were public places, he asserted, and surveilling them in no way contradicted the First and Fourth amendments.
When asked if it was acceptable to screen mosques for anti-American sentiment, Carson said that ISIS was planning to “take advantage of our PC attitude to get us.” In his closing remarks, the retired neurosurgeon also swore that as president he would save the country from the scourge of “political correctness.”
Several of the debaters expressed their opposition to admitting Syrian refugees, citing their distrust of the government’s abilities to properly screen and vet them. Santorum said performing adequate background checks for refugees coming from a war-torn region was a “physical impossibility.”
Donald Trump reasserted his plan to effect a temporary ban on all Muslims (“until we can figure out what’s going on”) from entering the U.S., which he said was not an issue of discrimination, nor was it a concern of his that such a policy might alienate potential allies in the Arab world. “We’re not talking about isolation; we’re talking about security,” he said. “We’re not talking about religion; we’re talking abut security.”
Pataki said that Trump’s plan to ban all Muslims from entering the United States was unconstitutional, un-American, and wrong, and he described the business tycoon as a modern-day Know-Nothing, referring to the mid-19th century political party that espoused nativist and anti-Catholic views.
Graham called Trump’s plan of a “total and complete shutdown on Muslims entering” the country “a coup” for ISIS because it would drive a wedge between the U.S. and the moderate Muslims rejecting radical Islam, who Graham maintained would be vital to defeating ISIS. However, he conceded: “If it’s Trump, so be it. That’s who I’ll support.” In fact, each of the candidates on the undercard condemned Trump, but wavered in their disapproval when asked if they would support him as the nominee, each man in his turn conceding that he would.
For his part, Trump renewed his promise not to run a third-party campaign, saying that he had gained great respect for the Republican leadership, was committed to the party, and was honored to be its frontrunner.
Trump also reaffirmed his intention to close down certain parts of the Internet, namely in parts of the world “where we are at war with somebody,” and his willingness to target the families of terrorists, saying that it would make terrorists think twice since “they may not care about their own lives, but they do care about their families.”
When Paul reminded Trump about the Geneva Convention, the mogul shot back: “So they can kill us? But we can’t kill them?”
Trump Vs. Bush
Bush said Trump’s plans betrayed his “lack of seriousness” — leading to a vicious confrontation between the two men, breaking an otherwise relatively subdued streak from Trump. Bush threw Trump’s comments that he gets his information from “the shows” back at him. (Zinger from Jeb: “I don’t know if that’s Saturday morning or Sunday morning.”)
Trump accused Bush of lacking “toughness,” mocked him for his remarks that immigrating to America was “an act of love,” and sneeringly asked if he was going to apologize to him. “With Jeb’s attitude, we will never be great again,” The Donald said.
“Donald, you’re not going to be able to insult your way to the presidency. And I do have the strength,” Bush affirmed. “Leadership is not about attacking people and disparaging people.”
Apparently referring to a Monmouth poll released Monday, Trump advised Bush: “I’m at 42 and you’re at 3. So far I’m doing better.” (That poll actually has Trump at 41.)
“It doesn’t matter,” Jeb said.
“So far I’m doing better,” Trump asserted. “You know, you started off over here,” gestering to the center of the stage, “you’re moving over further and further. Pretty soon you’re going to be on the end.”
When Trump accused CNN of being unprofessional and unfair by putting undue focus on him, posing many questions to candidates in contraposition to Trump’s stated views, Hewitt reminded him: “It’s not CNN. It’s America, watching you.”
Not Hawkish Enough
Rubio, Cruz, and Paul sparred over the twin issues of domestic security and border security; specifically at issue was the USA Freedom Act, an update of the Patriot Act enacted in June 2015, which set limits on bulk metadata collection. When the bill passed the Senate, Cruz supported it, Rubio did not, and Paul attempted to filibuster its passage, because he believed even the curbed surveillance powers it granted were still too intrusive.
Cruz alleged that the act had strengthened the tools to go after terrorism, empowering law enforcement to focus “on the bad guys and not on law abiding citizens.” Rubio countered that there was nothing permitted under this bill that could not be done before, except that the loss of the valuable metadata tool was a vital one, which could have been used to prevent the terror attack in Southern California or future attacks.
Both Paul and Cruz accused Rubio of insincerely advocating for increased domestic security, while repeating their prior claims that the Florida senator had betrayed conservative policy on immigration by once supporting a 2013 bill for amnesty — which, Paul said, betrayed a fundamental misunderstanding of immigration issues. Shortly after the November debate, Cruz had also accused Rubio of flip-flopping on immigration, saying he had tried “to jam this amnesty down the American people’s throats.”
Although Graham referred to Cruz as an isolationist and accused the Texas senator of “withdrawing from the battlefield,” it was less than two weeks ago that Cruz promised to “utterly destroy ISIS” by “carpet-bomb[ing] them into oblivion.”
“I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark,” Cruz had said, “but we’re going to find out!”
Carson deflected a question about his military strategy by describing the process of removing brain tumors from children: “You should see the eyes of some of those children when I tell them I will take the tumor out of their head,” he began, illustrating how you had to be tough and resolute to see your way through a successful surgery — just like a bombing campaign. When asked to weigh in on Rubio and Cruz’s discussion about metadata collection, a flustered Carson seemed to confess that he wasn’t quite sure what the men were talking about. (“I think you have to ask them about that,” he said. “I don’t want to get in between them. Let them fight.”)
Throughout the evening, Fiorina and Christie cited their executive experience (as CEO of Hewlett-Packard and governor of New Jersey, respectively), and sounded similar notes of exasperation with the legislators and their proclivity for debate and emphasis on minutiae, claiming that they alone had the expertise to take real, substantive action. Fiorina suggested that her lack of speaking time was one reason for America’s disenchantment with the political class. (In fact, Kasich had the least speaking time.)
The Slippery Ted Cruz
Cruz — the one GOP candidate who has steadfastly been chummy with Trump — has enjoyed a recent surge in the polls, surpassing the tycoon in a few Iowa polls and coming in second nationally. Last week, the Texas senator was caught voicing some surreptitiously recorded remarks, in which he admitted he was playing nice with Trump and Carson, waiting to snatch up their support once GOP voters decided they didn’t want either man “having their finger on the button.”
Despite some harsh words between the Trump and Cruz in the days leading up to campaign, Cruz’s characteristically slippery evasions fizzled any potential confrontation. He said his comments had reflected his hope that Republican voters would make an honest decision. And there appeared to be no love lost between the two men.
Consciously or not, their closing statements chimed nicely together. Trump’s refrain, of course, was the now familiar “We don’t win anymore.”
Cruz: “Our strategy is simple: we win, they lose. We’ve done it before; we can do it again.”
This was the final Republican debate of the year. There are only seven more to go.
Republican U.S. presidential candidates (L-R) Dr. Ben Carson, businessman Donald Trump and Senator Ted Cruz hold their hands over their hearts for the singing of the U.S. national anthem before the start of the Republican presidential debate in Las Vegas, Nevada December 15, 2015. REUTERS/Mike Blake
This post has been updated.