Report

With the Elephant Out of the Room, Republicans Turn to Other Targets

In the final debate before the pivotal Iowa caucus, Donald Trump’s rivals tried to make the most of his absence -- and to find ways of slowing Ted Cruz.

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With frontrunner Donald Trump boycotting Thursday night’s Republican debate, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz found himself taking shots from all corners as rival candidates made a last push to improve their poll numbers ahead of Monday’s Iowa caucuses.

In the latest twist in the unpredictable GOP race, Cruz — a firebrand lawmaker who has alienated virtually all of his own party’s leadership and was once seen as the longest of long-shots — is now running second to Trump both nationally and in Iowa, where he trails the mogul by just under seven points. His growing political strength was on full display Thursday night as candidates ranging from Florida Sen. Marco Rubio to Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie accused Cruz of curtailing government surveillance, betraying conservative values, breaking past promises on immigration, and having tough talk on defense out of line with his actual voting records.

“This is the lie that Ted’s campaign is built on,” Rubio said, belittling his rival’s credibility as an outsider candidate running on a harshly anti-illegal immigration platform. “The truth is, Ted, throughout this campaign, you’ve been willing to say or do anything in order to get votes.”

With frontrunner Donald Trump boycotting Thursday night’s Republican debate, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz found himself taking shots from all corners as rival candidates made a last push to improve their poll numbers ahead of Monday’s Iowa caucuses.

In the latest twist in the unpredictable GOP race, Cruz — a firebrand lawmaker who has alienated virtually all of his own party’s leadership and was once seen as the longest of long-shots — is now running second to Trump both nationally and in Iowa, where he trails the mogul by just under seven points. His growing political strength was on full display Thursday night as candidates ranging from Florida Sen. Marco Rubio to Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie accused Cruz of curtailing government surveillance, betraying conservative values, breaking past promises on immigration, and having tough talk on defense out of line with his actual voting records.

“This is the lie that Ted’s campaign is built on,” Rubio said, belittling his rival’s credibility as an outsider candidate running on a harshly anti-illegal immigration platform. “The truth is, Ted, throughout this campaign, you’ve been willing to say or do anything in order to get votes.”

While Christie reiterated that Cruz’s vote to reform the NSA “made the country less safe,” Paul meanwhile, said he’s playing both sides of the surveillance debate. “Ted said he was for NSA reform, but then he told Marco Rubio, no, no, no, I voted for the bill because I’m for the government collecting 100 percent of your cell phone records,” Paul said. “I don’t think Ted can have it both ways.”

Cruz, for his part, used his opening remarks to take a page out of the Trump playbook — literally.

“Let me say I’m a maniac and everyone on this stage is stupid, fat, and ugly. And Ben, you’re a terrible surgeon,” Cruz said, pausing for effect. “Now that we’ve gotten the Donald Trump portion out of the way, I want to thank everyone here for showing the men and women of Iowa the respect to show up and make the case to the people of this state and the people of the country why each of us believe we would make the best commander-in-chief.”

After a spat with debate host Fox News, the GOP frontrunner decided to hold a rival event nearby in Iowa, which he later said had raised $6 million to benefit veterans, though it remains unclear which groups will actually receive the money. He still showed up, but only as a punchline, giving more airtime — and oxygen — to rival candidates as they laid out their positions on the war against the Islamic State, immigration, the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and the best ways of countering homegrown Islamist extremism.

In another rarity for the 2016 election so far, Trump took a several-hour hiatus from Twitter, seeming to start up only after the debate ended: “An unbelievable night in Iowa with our great Veterans! We raised $6,000,000.00 while the politicians talked!”

Here are Foreign Policy’s top four takeaways from what they said.

Trump Truant

While Trump sparked a media firestorm by skipping the debate, his stunt may have backfired as a political strategy because it allowed his opponents to deride him as being too cowardly to face aggressive questioning and made it easier for them to sell their own candidacies without facing Trump’s typically relentless barrage of insults.

No one benefited more than Cruz, who is making a play for Iowa centered on his appeal to social conservatives and evangelicals who remain skeptical of Trump because of his past positions on abortion and gay marriage and his relatively secular background. The businessman’s decision to sit out the debate allowed Cruz to play the frontrunner for two hours just days before Iowa voters make their decision — and gave the Texas senator and other rivals the chance to attack Trump on national TV while he had no chance to defend himself.

Indeed, the Trump-free debate gave viewers the opposite of what has fueled his anti-establishment, anger-based campaign: a debate relatively substantive compared to the cattiness of previous forums, which were marked by the insults Trump enthusiastically lobbed at his rivals.

Despite its purported support for veterans, Trump’s event came off like a tantrum rather than a principled stance, while in the debate his rivals adopted a seriousness better suited to the tumultuous global security climate they describe. They portrayed Trump’s ploy as Fox News did: evidence that he won’t be able to handle the responsibilities of the office if he can’t even handle debate questions he doesn’t like.

“A debate actually is a policy issue, but I will say this,” Cruz said after sparring with one of the Fox News moderators over his complaint all the questions were invitations to attack him. But he couldn’t help but get in a sarcastic allusion to Trump’s touchiness, “Gosh, if you guys ask one more mean question I may have to leave the stage.”

To which Rubio quipped: “Don’t worry, I’m not leaving the stage no matter what you ask me.”

Tough on Terror?

In the debate, the other Republicans hit on two of their favored foreign policy refrains: demands for the Obama administration to “unshackle” and fully fund the U.S. military. Though the campaign against ISIS is nearly 18-months-old, and the presidential campaign just days from its first decision, they slammed the president’s approach but offered no new ideas, save for a no-fly zone. In fact, most of their specific recommendations are already being done.

Bush gave a lengthy recap of a prior national security speech where he outlined a plan to arm the Kurds, embed U.S. military trainers with Iraqi security forces, and re-engage with Sunni tribal leaders — all key elements of President Barack Obama’s current strategy for defeating ISIS.

Cruz said, “We need to rebuild the military to defeat the enemy.” Rubio noted: “You cannot destroy ISIS with a military that’s being diminished.” Bush piled on: “Look, we have waiting lists for veterans that are — that are leaving because of the sequester where we’re gutting the military.”  

But as the Associated Press notes, Obama has spent roughly the same on weapons modernization as his predecessor George W. Bush. And there’s particular irony to the senators’ insistence — it’s Congress that enacted the Budget Control Act, and has extended spending caps, that have forced cuts known as sequestration. The top military brass have an endless rotation of visits to the Hill warning of the dangers of sequestration, at the same time as they plead for lawmakers to free them of bases and equipment they no longer want or need (but that provide jobs and federal dollars to members’ home districts.)

Ted “Carpet Bomb” Cruz

The Texas senator was asked about what seems to be one of his favored topics of late: carpet bombing. He has described his national security strategy as a triangulation between the anti-interventionist leanings of Paul and the hawkish approach of former Republican nominee Sen. John McCain. When it comes to the Islamic State, though, Cruz has put himself firmly in McCain’s camp — and then gone even further with his repeated calls for carpet bombing militant targets in Iraq and Syria.

You claim it is tough talk to discuss carpet bombing. It is not tough talk. It is a different, fundamental military strategy than what we’ve seen from Barack Obama,” Cruz said, again citing the Gulf War as an example. In fact, that war marked the first in which precision-guided bombs played a decisive role.

Throughout the campaign the GOP candidates have engaged in something of a rhetorical arms race on American power, with little regard for the potential legal or humanitarian implications. But if the military were to actually take up Cruz’s suggestion of carpet bombing, or Bush’s urging to “Get the lawyers off the damn backs of the military once and for all,” it could lead to potential human rights violations and war crimes.

For that reason and others, as Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Paul Selva said in a recent Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that Cruz happened to miss, carpet bombing “isn’t now, nor will it ever be” U.S. military strategy.

Rubio Goes Big on Gitmo

Somewhat surprisingly, the Florida senator twice invoked taking terrorists to the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to demonstrate his counterterrorism credentials. Yet while special forces recently arrived in Syria with an expanded mission to capture, rather than just kill, top-level ISIS leaders, the Obama administration has made it clear they will not add to the population at Guantanamo.

“And if we capture any of these ISIS killers alive, they are going to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and we’re going to find out everything they know, because when I’m president, unlike Barack Obama, we will keep this country safe,” Rubio said. And again, later, “We must keep America safe from this threat. And yes, when I am president of the United States, if there is some place in this country where radical jihadists are planning to attack the United States, we will go after them wherever they are, and if we capture them alive, they are going to Guantanamo.”
Rubio is a staunch Cuba hawk, but he hasn’t been a key player in GOP efforts to prevent Obama from transferring the remaining Guantanamo detainees to American soil. Though Rubio’s campaign has since pushed back, aides reported he has adopted a “3-2-1” strategy — third in Iowa, second in New Hampshire, and first in South Carolina — where the Pentagon recently conducted site surveys for a potential Guantanamo alternative on U.S. soil. The state’s lawmakers and officials have vowed to block any attempt by Obama to move detainees there, and Rubio is positioning himself for their support.

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

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