Shadow Government

The Good News from the GOP Debate

Why the party can breathe a sigh of relief.


The final republican debate on national security was a relief for the party. The two politicians Republican candidates attacked most in last night’s debate were Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Establishment candidates seemed to retake the high ground, making the case for sustained and serious engagement with the world. And several candidates turned in solid performances, showing the strength of the field and giving conservatives the luxury of choosing from among good choices.

But the high-level nonsense being peddled by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) (carpet bombing) and Donald Trump (killing families of terrorists) as solutions to the rise of barbaric Islamic State are — in addition to being war crimes — damaging the Republican brand. It is compromising the advantage President Barack Obama’s failures have handed Republicans: the chance to revivify our reputation before Iraq for sober pragmatism. The fiasco of Obama administration policy un-freighted by strategy will get a free pass if either of them are the nominee. Also, it’s likely irrelevant given his plummeting in standings, but it should probably be disqualifying that Ben Carson refused to take a position on the privacy versus security trade-offs. Sen. Rand Paul’s (R-Ky.) moment may have passed, but the issue remains central to governance in the age of terrorism.

Tonight’s debate established (not that it was ever much in doubt) that not only does Trump not know that the ultimate defense of our country rests on the deterrence provided by the air, sea, and land forces of our nuclear weapons, but he also doesn’t have staff doing the basic due diligence of campaign appearances. Every defense expert that appears on Hew Hewitt’s radio show gets asked about the nuclear triad — that shouldn’t have been a surprise.

Still, there was much to like in the debate. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) had the best night, taking fire from all directions and calmly explaining himself in ways appealing to outside the beltway voters — a rare trick for a creature of Washington. Cruz may be the champion debater (his circumlocution refusing condemn Trump’s Muslim immigration ban was artful), but Rubio knows how to debate for political purpose; he routinely got the better of Cruz Tuesday night. And whether or not you like his policies, Rubio knows the national security brief cold.

As for Jeb Bush, he finally looked like a serious presidential candidate. He was especially good emphasizing that Trump doesn’t have solutions to national security problems. Bush sounded properly exasperated with Trump, and unlike the telegraphed roundhouse he tried to deliver against Rubio last debate, Bush’s hits on Trump felt authentic. In his own awkward way, Bush felt statesmanlike, alone among the candidates confronting the damaging force of Trump, and with reasoned exasperation. His gentle mockery (saying it seemed like Trump got his policy ideas from Saturday morning cartoons rather than Sunday morning political shows) and seriousness wear well. It’s like being transported back to an earlier time when our politics were less crass and vicious — and suggests he would do well managing Congress across party lines.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie also had his best night, using the Rubio-Cruz-Paul argument on immigrant amnesty as framing to disparage any Senate candidate as all talk: “endless debates about how many angels on the head of a pin from people who’ve never had to make a consequential decision.” He’s become the Greek chorus of the Republican debates, a tribune for the people, repeatedly pointing out that Washington insiders talk about issues in ways alienating to voters.

Cruz had one winning moment, when he pointed out that when things go wrong, President Obama rushes to impinge the rights of law-abiding citizens. It was a solid appeal to the base, and both accurate about the president and a clear statement of how his policies would differ. Carly Fiorina made the best defense yet of metadata programs (which have been badly impaired by administration officials failing to explain in advance to our public what they are surveilling or why) saying that every parent in the country checked social media, the government should be able to, also. The eventual nominee will benefit from those contributions, a nice reminder of the value of the scrum these debates with such a wide field: they are idea factories.

Fiorina also proved herself a valuable addition to any ticket with her continued dominance over Trump. When he argued at length that American involvement in the Middle East was a disaster, she replied he had the same position as President Obama.

In other news, Trump pledged to support the eventual nominee, for whatever that’s worth. I don’t think many Trump supporters would begrudge him breaking that commitment, or that many Trump opponents will believe him, but it was interesting he tried a choirboy move — and likely only the result of him believing he will be the nominee.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Kori Schake is the director of foreign and defense policy at the American Enterprise Institute, a former U.S. government official in foreign and security policy, and the author of America vs the West: Can the Liberal World Order Be Preserved? Twitter: @KoriSchake

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