Shadow Government

The GOP Debate Postmortem: Who Is Fit to Be Commander in Chief?

What did the first bout in a long Republican campaign reveal?


With the first GOP candidate debate, presidential campaign season heated up Thursday night. As expected this week, one man gave a performance that raised doubts about his fitness to be Commander-in-Chief. Unfortunately, that man was our current Commander-in-Chief, President Barack Obama, and it wasn’t in the much-hyped debate. As has been amply documented in the recent posts on Shadow Government (see here, here, here, and here), President Obama gave a remarkably dishonest speech this week that diminished the office of president and, along the way underscored how weak his case for the Iran deal is. Rather than engage the serious critiques raised by serious people, President Obama gave a speech full of dog whistles aimed at triggering the partisan reflexes of his base.

In that regard, it was rather similar to the performance given by Donald Trump in the weeks leading up to the Republican primary debate. Neither Obama nor Trump seem aware of substantive arguments relevant to their preferred policies, and both repeatedly resort to name-calling and silly sound-bites pandering to knee-jerk partisans.

I hoped the primary debate would rise above that, and it did in many respects. But at least with regard to foreign policy it did not explore the issues as deeply as is warranted — it hardly could when the moderators were forced to cycle through all 10 candidates.

Even with the difficult format, I think the debate should have covered foreign policy more fully than it did, because on foreign policy this has been a failed presidency; even Democrats have called our current situation a “world in turmoil.” That turmoil is Obama’s legacy, and the next president, Republican or Democrat, will have to deal with the myriad challenges confronting our country. To put to use an apt metaphor, the policies of the last several years have driven our foreign policy into a ditch, and the next president will have to figure out a way to get the car back on the road to success.

Fox’s decision to open with a series of gotcha questions had the effect of diminishing foreign policy, since the candidates (with one or two important exceptions) largely agree on foreign policy.

The Fox moderators did ask Sen. Rand Paul (R­-Ky.) about his outrageous charge blaming the rise of the Islamic State (IS) on Republicans — and Paul’s answer helped explain why his appeal has faded in recent years. Paul made it sound like the real problem with IS was that the United States was funding it and its allies. Even casual followers of the news know that the problem is more complicated than that. Paul’s problem is that he has only one answer to every global problem: the United States should do less and come home. Given the problems the next president will inherit, that answer probably will not reassure most Republican voters.

Fox moderators did ask some gotcha foreign policy questions, but the only one that got enough into the details to gauge the substance was the question to Gov. Chris Christie (R-N.J.) about the NSA collection programs. In a vivid exchange with Paul, Christie got the better of him on the substance of the terrorism surveillance issue, even if Paul got bigger applause for his sound bites. There were also a gotcha questions on whether the Iraq war was a mistake and coercive interrogation techniques, but both of those questions avoided the heart of the matter. Gov. Jeb Bush (R-Fla.), the predictable recipient of the Iraq gotcha question, managed to turn it around to the heart of the matter: how the mistakes most affecting the Middle East today are the ones that have happened on Obama’s watch.

The debate finally got to some foreign policy nitty-gritty in the last segment with a series of rapid-fire questions. The stronger candidates shined and the weaker ones struggled. Most importantly, none of the top-tier candidates made major gaffes on foreign policy — nor did any of the top-tier candidates attack the other top-tier rivals on foreign policy in a way that provides fodder to Democrats.

The debate was intended to sort the slate, sifting the serious from the non-serious candidates. And some of that happened. The candidates best prepared to handle foreign policy demonstrated their competence: above all Gov. Bush, but also Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Gov. Christie, and Governor Scott Walker (R-Wis.). Some of the other candidates may have made it over a much lower bar — giving a performance no worse than President Obama’s Iran speech — but given the array of challenges that the next administration will face, the country will need more than that.

Presumably, we will get more than that in the coming weeks as the candidates address foreign policy more fully.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.

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