Campaign Focus: National Security is Here to Stay

December 2, 2015

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After the deadly terrorist attacks in Paris last month, amid the ongoing conflict in Syria and Iraq, and with voters increasingly citing national security as a top issue, it’s no surprise that candidates have been spending more time on the campaign trail talking about defense, terrorism, and the Middle East. Republicans in particular were fully willing to shift course. As Kenneth T. Walsh explains in U.S. News & World Report, “day after day, Republican presidential candidates are trying to show how tough they would be in fighting terrorists.”

But the growing focus on national security isn’t affecting the GOP field the way you’d expect, writes Emily Cadei in Newsweek. “Conventional wisdom holds that when security is at stake, voters gravitate toward the adult in the room” — people like Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and John Kasich. “But as has been the case so many times this year, the American electorate is defying expectations.” In other words, Donald Trump is still riding high in the polls.

But in recognition of voters’ shifting priorities, the three remaining Democratic candidates are also re-orienting their messages. All three spoke at a recent New Hampshire event, and as The Boston Globe’s James Pindell notes, “unlike in previous events, their pitch to voters included a heavy focus on how they would handle the threat from the Islamic State.”

Who’s ready to lead?

Each candidate now faces the task of demonstrating why he or she is most prepared to be the nation’s commander-in-chief. Christie got some help from the New Hampshire Union Leader, the state’s largest newspaper, which endorsed the New Jersey governor in the state’s GOP primary race: “Gov. Christie is right for these dangerous times. He has prosecuted terrorists and dealt admirably with major disasters. But the one reason he may be best-suited to lead during these times is because he tells it like it is and isn’t shy about it.”

Christie appeared this week on MSNBC and focused on the theme he increasingly appears to be staking his candidacy on. “I’m the only candidate that has fought terrorism,” he told the hosts of Morning Joe, a statement New Hampshire voters will hear again and again in the two months until the state’s primary.

Bush made his case in an opinion piece for the Concord Monitor. In it, he argues that a Hillary Clinton presidency “will be Barack Obama’s third term,” and that “the question facing Republican voters is who has the proven leadership abilities” to handle pressing challenges. He promises to strengthen the military, destroy the Islamic State, confront Iranian aggression, and curtail Chinese cyberattacks.

His campaign also just spent $600,000 to air a new TV ad featuring a number of Medal of Honor recipients who make the case that Bush is the best candidate for the job of commander-in-chief. Check out the ad here.

Meanwhile, Lindsey Graham wants to welcome all of the other candidates to the party. His campaign has been all about national security since its launch, and in a joint interview with his Senate colleague John McCain in The Washington Post, he remained focused like a laser beam on issues such as the threat posed by the Islamic State: “I’m embracing victory. This is a war that I intend to win. I am intending to create an environment where you don’t have to worry about going to a mall, putting your kid on a plane — [instead] that a terrorist has to worry about getting on the phone or getting in a car. You’ll never convince me we can’t win. We must. We will.”

Hillary took Wall Street campaign cash because 9/11

Hillary Clinton is vulnerable in the Democratic primaries to charges that her relationship with Wall Street is too close. During a debate last month, she deflected questions about whether campaign contributions have influenced her positions on financial regulations by invoking the 9/11 terrorist attacks. She adopted the same tactic this week in a CBS interview: “I have stood for a lot of regulation on big banks and on the financial services sector. I also represented New York and represented everybody from the dairy farmers you know to the fishermen. Everybody. And so, yes, do I know people and did I, you know, help rebuild after 9/11? Yes, I did.”

Martin O’Malley’s deputy campaign manager, Lis Smith, took to Twitter to criticize the Democratic front-runner:

Climate change When Bernie Sanders said in a debate this fall that climate change was “the greatest national security threat” to the United States, he was (unsurprisingly) blasted by his GOP counterparts. But after President Obama said that tackling climate change was a “powerful rebuke” to terrorists and his deputy national security advisor refused to say which threat is more severe, Republicans are having a field day. Bush called the administration’s views “ludicrous.” Rand Paul said Obama’s comments were “the most outlandish examples of political opportunism and demagoguery.” Trump, on MSNBC: “I think one of the dumbest statements I’ve ever heard in politics — in the history of politics as I know it, which is pretty good, was Obama’s statement that our No. 1 problem is global warming.” Carly Fiorina: Obama is “delusional.” And Mike Huckabee tweeted:

The F-word Comes Out Again

Last week it was Max Boot (an adviser to Marco Rubio) who called Trump a fascist. Now it’s Martin O’Malley. “Trump says we should be monitoring everyone of the Muslim faith, keeping some kind of registry, maybe even issuing special ID cards,” he said at the New Hampshire Democratic Party’s Jefferson-Jackson dinner. “Let me ask you this. Who is next? Catholics? Trade unionists? Artists? We’ve seen this road before, and it does not lead to a good place. … Panic and political opportunism are a toxic mix — a mix that can often precede fascism or the plunging of our republic into a security state.”

Cruz vs. Rubio, Round 2

The battle between Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio is heating up. After a group linked to Rubio produced an ad criticizing Cruz’s vote to end NSA collection of communications metadata last week, Cruz’s campaign has returned fire with his own ad. In it, Congressman Jim Bridenstine, a Cruz supporter and former Navy pilot, calls the original ad “despicable” and turns the tables on Rubio, accusing him of “joining forces” with Obama on immigration reform. Watch it here.

In response, Rubio doubled down: “I stand strongly on behalf of the ability of this government to gather intelligence on our adversaries and our enemies, especially terrorists, but also other nation states. Those [intelligence programs] keep us safer,” he told Fox News. “There are Republicans, including Senator Cruz, that have voted to weaken those programs. That is just part of the record, it is nothing personal.”

And in the fight over which first-term Cuban-American senator and White House aspirant is more like the Democrats on national security, Cruz then spent much of an interview with Bloomberg seeking to tie Rubio to Hillary Clinton on foreign policy issues, including Libya and Syria.

Lest you think this intra-party spat is little more than a sideshow in the campaign, Peter Grier explains in The Christian Science Monitor why the battle “will have major ramifications for the 2016 presidential race — and perhaps for Republican Party orthodoxy as well.”

Royal Rumble

Perhaps envious of the media attention Rubio and Cruz are earning for their clash over intelligence and surveillance, a few other candidates are getting in on the fun.

Christie had this to say of Cruz’s vote on NSA reform: “He went for the easy political vote at a time when it looked like it was kind of a popular thing to do. With all those dead Parisians, [it] doesn’t look so popular anymore.”

Paul echoed Cruz’s charges that Rubio is a hawk in the Clinton mold: “Hillary Clinton, Marco Rubio and several other of today’s neoconservatives are the ideological heirs to an unreconstructed John Foster Dulles.” He also criticized Rubio’s willingness to go to war against the Islamic State: “Currently, 31 factions in 16 countries pledge allegiance to ISIS. Were we ever to have a substantive debate over foreign policy, one might want to ask Mr. Rubio which countries he will send troops to — or maybe it’s a shorter list of which countries won’t he send troops to.”

When Trump was asked where he comes down on the issue of NSA surveillance, he replied, “I assume that when I pick up my telephone, people are listening to my conversations anyway, if you want to know the truth. It’s pretty sad commentary. But I err on the side of security.”

Mr. Carson goes to Jordan

Ben Carson made a trip to Jordan over the weekend, amid lingering questions about his level of preparedness to handle foreign policy issues. After visiting refugee camps, he called the refugee crisis a “great human tragedy.” Nevertheless, Carson still doesn’t believe the United States should admit refugees into the country. In fact, he claims that the Syrian refugees he spoke to “were pretty adamant about the fact that they want to go back to Syria” instead of being resettled in a country like the United States.

Carson faced criticism from refugee organizations, which say he still misses the big picture. “I could watch brain surgery for a day or two; that doesn’t make me a brain surgeon,” said an official from one group. “You cannot get an appreciation for the scale of this crisis and the global implications of it by spending a day or two talking to a few refugees in one location.”

Hillary Hearts Homeland

As November came to a close, we were treated to the now monthly ritual of another batch of emails from Hillary Clinton’s private server being released. Among this set is an October 2012 email in which she asked senior adviser Philippe Reines, “Do you know what channel on the TV in DC is the program listing? And, specifically, what channel number is Showtime?” Clinton followed up to explain: “Because I want to watch ‘Homeland’.”


John Amble is the managing editor of War on the Rocks.


Photo credit: Gage Skidmore