The fifth Republican debate last night was on the topic of national security and this is exactly the kind of topic that Republicans love, because it enables you to talk tough and freely advance the most preposterous suggestions knowing full well that such fact-free speculations carry no costs. But in order to make their case that the US needed tough new leadership, they had to start with a baseline where things are really bad so all the candidates praised the abilities of ISIS to the skies, describing it as this immensely powerful and sophisticated force that was expanding its territory by leaps and bounds and threatening the entire world. ISIS could take clips of the debate and make it into a recruitment video, to impress young people around the world that the US was quaking in its boots in fear of their power.
Meanwhile the US military was described as wretched, weak, and small, had decades-old equipment and ineffective leadership, the country had porous and undefended borders, and the government of president Obama was incompetent, feckless, and lacked vision and, if not actually treasonous, was sympathetic to the radicals, as evidenced by him not using that magical phrase ‘radical Islamic terrorism’. Gratuitous slaps at Obama and Hillary Clinton were real crowd-pleasers and occurred with regularity.
After listening to them one could be excused for being surprised that ISIS forces had not already overrun the US and installed its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as president in the White House and ordered Carly Fiorina to wear a burka. At least then Donald Trump could be spared the pain of seeing her face.
This dire picture had to be painted so that each of them could portray themselves as the strong energetic leader who would reverse this trend. They all knew exactly what to do. They would restore the image of the US as a superpower by building up the military to enormous strength and tell not only ISIS, but Russia, China, Iran, Syria and pretty much the entire world that they had better do what the US said or else. They would destroy ISIS, take all their territory from them and destroy their dream of creating a caliphate, and find and stop or kill all the bad guys. So easy!
Here are some of my other general impressions.
Marco Rubio seemed to have the biggest fan club in the audience and there were several boos for Trump for some of his standard applause lines (such as killing the families of people deemed to be terrorists), which made me wonder if the party establishment had not salted the crowd to its liking.
Fiorina once again trotted out her personal story of having buried a child, fought breast cancer, begun as a secretary and worked her way to the top (a bogus story) while fighting discrimination for being a woman. So naturally she has what it takes to lead the country. She said, to big applause, that the private sector can do better than the corrupt, incompetent, and inefficient government bureaucracy. She disparaged all men as mere talkers, recounting a statement by Margaret Thatcher that “If you want something talked about, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman.” I would not be surprised to see Hillary Clinton using that clip as an endorsement of her. Fiorina dismissed first term senators as knowing nothing of leadership. Take that, Rubio, Cruz, and Paul!
She said that she would not talk to Vladimir Putin until she had first cowed him into submission. What would she do about North Korea? Easy. She would first contain China and force them to submit to her because China, like Russia, respects only force. Then she would invite them to cooperate with the US to encircle North Korea and they of course would. Sounds like a great plan because China loves to work with people who humiliate them! Fiorina said that great military leaders like David Petraeus were forced out by Obama because they told him things he did not like. What? Surely she knows that Petraues had to quit because he had an affair with his biographer and gave her classified information? Is there anything Fiorina will not flatly lie about
Carson started by asking people to pause for a moment of silence for the victims of San Bernandino and said that we should view the US as a sick patient but that metaphor went nowhere.
Trump did his usual shtick opposing Mexicans, refugees, Muslims, and threw in criticisms of China and Japan for good measure.
Jeb Bush tried to portray himself as the candidate of reason and attacked Trump, saying that banning all Muslims from the US will prevent us from forming allies with Arab world. Trump takes a swipe at him and his brother in return. Bush emphasized that he is the serious person and that Trump would cause chaos.
Cruz and Rubio attacked each other, Cruz saying that Rubio worked with Obama and Democratic senator Shumer to grant amnesty to undocumented immigrants while Rubio said that Cruz and Paul had weakened national security by eliminating some aspects of bulk collection of data. Cruz even said that Rubio’s attacks on his vote for the National Freedom Act were like those of Saul Alinsky, a minor social theorist who has been elevated by Republicans to have Rasputin-like influence over Obama and Clinton.
The crowd seemed shocked by Paul’s claim that Rubio was the weakest on national security. Rubio says he wants to build the best military and attacks Cruz for his votes to cut the military and Cruz fights back saying that Rubio has too often supported Obama and Clinton.
Chris Christie acted like he alone, as a US attorney, protected New Jersey after 9/11 and that senators just talk but he acts.
Carson and Fiorina whined about not getting enough time. Carson wants to monitor anti-American sentiment but does not say how to measure that. He (surprise!) attacks political correctness again and again
Trump wants to get brilliant people from Silicon Valley to prevent ISIS from using ‘our’ internet and is willing to shut down part of the internet if necessary.
Kasich wants to end encryption.
Cruz said he wants to use overwhelming power and carpet bomb areas where ISIS is but when asked about the civilians who live in those areas like Raqqa, he says that he will bomb only the militants which suggests that he does not know what the term ‘carpet bombing’ means. He too brings up political correctness as a bad thing.
Trump was asked how his suggestion of killing families of terrorists makes him different from ISIS. He says that this family assassination program will deter terrorists because while they may not care about themselves, they do care about their families. The crowd was not supportive and booed, and he looked surprised at the reaction.
On the question of what should be the attitude of the US to dictators and whether the Middle East was better off with dictators, Paul said that getting rid of Assad will create chaos and help ISIS and both he and Cruz were not in favor of toppling him. Trump joined them in saying that the policy of regime change had made a mess of that region. Trump says that the US has created a big mess in that region and that the $4 trillion spent on wars by the US were wasted and could have been better spent on the US. He says that you have to have your priorities right. If you are fighting ISIS, it is a mistake to be also fighting against Assad, Russia, and Iran since they are fighting ISIS. Paul said that policies of regime change had not worked and instead had created chaos. He gets big applause.
Rubio is asked about his support for the toppling of Gaddafi that led to chaos in Libya and why that would not happen again with Assad. He says that Assad is different from Gaddafi because Assad strengthens Russia and Iran and that is why he must go.
Bush now says that getting rid of Saddam Hussein was a good idea, adding to the confusion surrounding his previous answers to this question.
John Kasich says Assad has to go and that Russia has to be ‘punched in the nose’. This was one of the many low points of the evening. Another low point was Chris Christie saying he is willing to shoot down a Russian plane if it entered a US no-fly zone in Syria. Paul says that Christie will start World War III by confronting Russia recklessly.
Christie says that US should respond to any Chinese cyberattack by hacking the data of the Chinese leadership and exposing their embarrassing private information. Bush agrees with Christie, marking another low point.
Paul: Greatest threat is the debt and he is the only fiscal conservative
Kasich: Republicans need to win Ohio. Unspoken but obvious message: I am the governor of Ohio.
Christie: 9/11 yadda yadda yadda
Fiorina: Entrenched political class is the problem. I am not a member of that class.
Bush: I am the person people can trust
Rubio: Country is going to the dogs. I will take it back from the dogs
Cruz: Obama bad, Reagan good. I am like Reagan. We will win. ISIS will lose.
Carson: America is great! Political correctness is bad!
Trump: America doesn’t win and is headed for disaster. I will win and make it great again.
Man, this debate was a mess.