The Top 5 Things to Listen for in the First GOP Debate
From targeting Donald Trump to tough talk about Vladimir Putin, here's what you can expect the 10 Republican candidates to say.
Pundits and political professionals were glued to their television sets Tuesday night while they waited for the results of a crucial new set of polling data. The numbers didn’t show how Hillary Clinton matched up against various Republican contenders, however, or which party was more likely to control Congress. Instead, the polls revealed something that was seemingly far more prosaic: which 10 Republican presidential candidates would take the stage Thursday for the first GOP primary debate.
That so much anticipation surrounded the debate’s lineup highlights the unprecedented nature of the 2016 elections, where an eye-opening 17 Republicans are seeking their party’s presidential nomination. The candidates include an array of sitting senators and governors, several of whom have left office, an ordained minister, and a retired neurosurgeon. There’s also a self-effacing businessman and former TV personality known for his, uh, nuanced analysis of current events.
Fox News, which is hosting the first presidential debate, said that the 10 candidates who made the cut, based on their current polling average, were that soft-spoken businessman, Donald Trump; former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush; Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker; former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee; retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson; Texas Sen. Ted Cruz; Florida Sen. Marco Rubio; Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul; New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie; and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
The remaining seven contenders — which includes former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, both of whom also ran in 2012 — will take part in a separate warm-up debate Thursday that will take place four hours before the lucky 10 take the stage for the prime-time main event.
Regardless of which debate you tune in for, the Republicans are sure to trot out standard promises to repeal Obamacare, increase the size of the defense budget, and find new taxes to cut. But with the Islamic State holding onto parts of Syria and Iraq, Russia on the march in Eastern Europe, and the White House defending its controversial nuclear deal with Iran, foreign policy will play a far more prominent role than might have been expected even a year ago. Below is a guide to the top five things to listen for once the fireworks start flying during the debate.
Look for Bush, Rubio, and other candidates to denounce Trump over his incendiary comments on immigration and a host of other foreign-policy issues.
Trump has called for a massive wall on the U.S. border to keep out Mexican immigrants, who he describes as mostly rapists and drug dealers. And he has touted a “beautiful” plan to defeat Islamic State militants, but he claims he cannot divulge the details.
His rivals could try to push Trump to offer up more details to back up his sweeping promises to vanquish the Islamic State, defuse tensions with Russia, and gain the upper hand in trade talks with China and Japan.
On immigration, Trump has so far refused to apologize for his remarks, and polls indicate he enjoys strong support among Republican voters on the issue.
As the other candidates go after the front-runner, will “the Donald” respond with the usual fireworks or ease back on the throttle in a bid to appear more “presidential”?
Debates can be hazardous for a leading candidate. Perhaps the biggest danger for Trump is making a fatal gaffe by botching the details of a key issue, a stumble that could provide ammunition to critics who paint him as a publicity hound lacking substance.
One uniting issue among the Republican candidates is their almost uniform opposition to President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran — an agreement that offers sanctions relief to Tehran in exchange for restrictions on its nuclear program.
Within hours of the signing of the multilateral accord in Vienna last month, the GOP’s top White House hopefuls began vowing to overturn it. Walker said it “will be remembered as one of America’s worst diplomatic failures,” and Rubio said it “undermines our national security.” Even Paul, a traditional skeptic of alarmist neoconservatism, called the agreement “unacceptable.”
What’s less certain is how vociferously the individual candidates will criticize the deal, and what promises, if any, each will make about trying to renegotiate the agreement or tear it to shreds once in office.
Distancing himself from Walker and Rubio, Bush has chided fellow Republicans for promising to torpedo the agreement immediately upon taking power.
“At 12:01 on January, whatever it is, 19th , I will not probably have a confirmed secretary of state; I will not have a confirmed national security team in place; I will not have consulted with our allies. I will not have had the intelligence briefings to have made a decision,” Bush said at a Nevada town hall last month. “If you’re running for president, I think it’s important to be mature and thoughtful about this.”
The remarks were a subtle dig at GOP candidates, such as Walker, who’ve said “we need to terminate the bad deal with Iran on the very first day in office.” It’s unclear if Bush will continue to use the Iran deal as a way to distinguish himself as a responsible executor of foreign policy, but he and Paul are the two candidates most likely to offer surprising or heterodox answers.
Paul, in particular, has come under pressure from his father’s libertarian base and foreign-policy realists for abandoning his pointed criticisms of the excesses of neoconservatism.
Thursday’s debate could be the moment his non-interventionist soul roars back to life. In an interview published Sunday in the Washington Post, Paul promoted the debate as a matchup between him and those who “want to blow up the world.” But for the slice of realist Republicans hoping for Paul to come out in support of the Iran deal — don’t hold your breath. “Senator Paul has spoken numerous times and has indicated he’s opposed and will be voting no,” Paul spokesman Sergio Gor told Foreign Policy.
3) The Islamic State:
Few things fire up the Republican base more than accusing Obama of projecting weakness in a strategically vital part of the world and leaving America more vulnerable to terrorism. The rise of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq gives them a twofer.
Most of the Republican candidates have blasted Obama for pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq in 2011, saying it helped pave the way for the emergence of the Islamic State. And they paint Obama’s war strategy as halfhearted and lacking muscle, though they rarely offer details as to how their approach would differ much from the current military campaign that relies on airstrikes and arming local forces.
Bush has said he favors sending special operations forces to accompany Iraqi troops into combat, while stopping short of advocating for a large ground force.
Only Sen. Lindsey Graham — who didn’t make the cut for the debate — has come out explicitly calling for a big military footprint, urging the deployment of 10,000 troops to shore up the war effort.
Rubio has criticized Obama for moving too slowly against the threat posed by the Islamic State. He has argued that the administration should have started arming moderate rebels in Syria long ago and that the president’s inaction created a vacuum that the militant group exploited.
To drive home his tough message, Rubio has even invoked a famous scene from the movie Taken to explain his war strategy against the Islamic State.
“We will look for you, we will find you, and we will kill you,” Rubio said.
When it comes to pledging support for the state of Israel, no one panders harder than a 2016 GOP presidential candidate.
When Cruz announced his candidacy for the White House in a John Lennon-inspired soliloquy in March, he asked Americans to “imagine a president who stands unapologetically with the nation of Israel.” When Obama signed a nuclear deal with Iran, Huckabee said the president was marching the Israelis to the “door of the oven,” a botched allusion to the Holocaust many found offensive. When Bush advisor and famed U.S. diplomat James Baker said he was “disappointed” with the slow progress in achieving a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict — a traditionally mainstream view in American politics — Bush disavowed the remarks as overly critical of Israel’s right-wing government.
Thursday is likely to provide Republican candidates another opportunity to profess their devotion to the Jewish state, a ritual egged on by the party’s Christian evangelical base and the GOP’s deep-pocketed donor class, which includes Jewish right-wing billionaire Sheldon Adelson among other wealthy pro-Israel kingmakers.
Thematically, GOP candidates can be expected to play up the very real and public spats between the Obama administration and the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which has resisted U.S. efforts to broker a peace deal with the Palestinians and forge a nuclear accord with Iran. It’s highly likely Thursday’s debaters will tie that sour relationship to the record of Hillary Clinton, who served as Obama’s secretary of state and is now the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee.
Eight years ago, then-President George W. Bush warmly hosted Russian President Vladimir Putin at his family home in Maine. On Thursday, it’s expected many of the Republican contenders will label Putin’s Russia as the greatest national security threat to the United States and try to out-macho each other with tough — if vague — promises to stand up to Moscow’s strongman.
The GOP candidates will be able to quote the words of some influential intellectual allies: Obama’s picks to be the next chairman and vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The nominee for the chairmanship, Marine Corps. Gen Joseph Dunford, called Moscow’s recent behavior in Ukraine and Eastern Europe “nothing short of alarming” and said “Russia presents the greatest threat to our national security” and “could pose an existential threat to the United States.” Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, the vice chairman nominee, followed days later by telling a Senate panel that he “would put the threats to this nation in the following order: Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, and all of the organizations that have grown around ideology that was articulated by al Qaeda.”
Russia is a potent political issue for Republicans for two reasons. First, it allows them to claim that their 2012 presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, was correct when he told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer in March 2012 that Russia was “without question, our number one geopolitical foe,” a comment that Obama mocked during a later debate by pointedly telling the former Massachusetts governor that “the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.”
Putin’s aggressive recent behavior also makes it easier for Republicans to accuse Obama of failing to do more to prevent the Russian leader from invading some of his neighbors and threatening others.
Bush, for instance, used a trip to Berlin in June to deride Putin as “a bully” and call for sending more U.S. troops to the Baltics to train local militaries there. Walker said Obama “gave Russia a reset button, and then they ultimately went into Ukraine.” Graham has called Obama “delusional” about Putin’s activities in Ukraine. In perhaps the most evocative critique, Cruz told a crowd of conservative activists that there was a popular new way of eating in Washington “called the Obama Diet. Works very, very well. You simply let Putin eat your lunch every day.”
But notably absent from the Republican attacks on Obama’s Russia policy are many specifics about what each candidate would do differently. Bush, for instance, said U.S. military training exercises in Eastern Europe should be more “robust,” but didn’t explicitly call for the deployment of ground combat troops and stressed that Washington shouldn’t “isolate Russia to the point where we push them into the arms of China.”
One of the top Republican candidates, meanwhile, has taken a very different line when it comes to Russia and the strongman in Moscow. Late last month, Trump said he would “get along very well with Vladimir Putin” and “had a great relationship with the people of Russia.” In a separate set of comments, Trump also said he’d be able to persuade Putin to turn over NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden, who has taken refuge in Russia.
“If I’m president, Putin says, ‘Hey, boom — you’re gone’ — I guarantee you that,” Trump told CNN.
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