GOP National Security Debate Recap

December 17, 2015

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Clinton’s pre-buttal

Ahead of the fifth GOP debate and anticipating attacks on her foreign policy views, Hillary Clinton went on the offensive in a speech she gave hours before the GOP contenders took to the stage. Her primary targets were current front-runner Donald Trump and the candidate her team appears to increasingly expect to ultimately prevail in the nomination battle, Ted Cruz.

Of Trump, and specifically of his statements about refusing Muslims entry into the United States and targeting family members of Islamic State fighters, Clinton said his language “alienates partners and undermines moderates we need around the world. … We cannot give into demagogues who play to our basest instincts.”

Her line of attack against Cruz centered on what she argued is a demonstrated unpreparedness to serve as commander-in-chief: “Promising to carpet bomb until the desert glows doesn’t make you sound strong. It makes you sound like you are in over your head.”

Takeaways from the debate

If you didn’t watch it (and the 18 million viewers that did suggest the country is less exhausted by politics than typically characterized — or maybe people just remain fascinated by the Trump phenomenon), Mollie Hemingway wrote a good recap for The Federalist with six themes that emerged. A few of the highlights:

1. Trump was less Trump-ish. “He continued to respond to tough questions by resorting to big picture answers, a technique that infuriates political professionals but plays fairly well with many voters.” But he did have “a string of embarrassing lines about how he’d shut down part of the Internet in his fight against ISIS.” So maybe still a little Trump-ish.

2. Jeb Bush did better. He specifically contrasted himself with Trump, promising that he “will be commander in chief, not agitator in chief, or divider in chief.” Whether his comparatively improved performance over previous debates is enough to reinvigorate a campaign that has been trending downward for months now remains to be seen.

3. No clear victor. While “every candidate had at least one good moment in the debate,” nobody emerged as a consensus winner.

But one did stand out: Fiorina

Writing for Brookings, John Hudak makes the case that Carly Fiorina was the one person on the still-crowded Republican debate stage who appeared ready to be commander-in-chief: “Polls show that America is too war weary to support huge, traditional ramp ups in old-fashioned war making. Yet, that wasn’t Fiorina’s angle. She approaches foreign policy from a modern, realistic, innovative approach. … Carly Fiorina looked like an individual ready to be commander-in-chief, overseeing a war in 2016. She stood beside a group of men ready to manage a war in 1920 or 1940.”

On the issues: national security debated

Over at Lawfare, Elina Saxena has done security-minded voters a service by pulling all quotes on national security and foreign policy from the debate transcripts and organizing them by category — from no-fly zones to cyber to Putin to Asia and more.

Before you were home from work, Lindsey Graham won a debate

Once again, Lindsey Graham turned in the best performance on a debate stage, and once again, it happened in the undercard debate. For The Washington Post, Philip Bump argued almost immediately that the candidate selection criteria for the debates are wrong and Graham needs to be included in the main debates.

One reason he’s so effective is that he focuses like a laser beam on the issues he thinks are important and confidently packages his views in a series of pithy and engaging remarks. CNN rolled up some of his more memorable one-liners from the debate, almost all of which were — like his entire campaign — about national security. A few examples:

“Ted, getting in bed with Iran and Russia to save Assad is inconceivable. Princess Buttercup would not like this.” (On Cruz’s foreign policy and “Princess Bride” campaign shtick)

“ISIL would be dancing in the streets, they just don’t believe in dancing.” (On a Trump election victory)

“I’m not afraid of a guy running around on a horse without a shirt.” (On Russian President Vladimir Putin)

The nuclear what now?

During the debate, Trump was asked which leg of the nuclear triad he would prioritize for modernization. As Tyler Rogoway writes at Foxtrot Alpha, Trump’s response makes it clear that he has no idea what the triad is. The video clip showing the exchange includes a long, meandering reply that in no way addresses the question.

But not all candidates were so perplexed. “Adding insult to bizarre injury,” Rogoway notes, “the exchange ended with Marco Rubio explaining the nuclear triad in detail.”

Fact check, please

The Associated Press took the red pen out and fact-checked a number of the statements candidates made during the debate. Cruz got the most scrutiny. Of the 11 statements the AP highlighted, five were his (and all of them fell short of being fully true and accurate, though to differing degrees).

On PBS NewsHour, Angie Drobnic Holan, the editor of PolitiFact, joined Gwen Ifill to take a closer look at some of the claims candidates made. Holan acknowledged that one candidate reigns supreme when it comes to playing fast and loose with the facts: “We haven’t fact-checked anyone as many times as we have fact-checked Donald Trump with so much inaccuracy. He just gets a lot of factual matters incorrect.” During the debate, Bush hit Trump on this record — not a difficult task, given that three-quarters of the more than 70 fact-checked Trump statements have proven false.

Ready … Aim …

One of the outcomes of the renewed emphasis on issues of national security and foreign policy is that more substantial divisions on key issues are becoming increasingly apparent. This is in many ways a function of Republicans’ two terms out of the White House, which has diminished the degree of intra-party cohesiveness and the sense of Republican orthodoxy on national security. The way that candidates portray these differences, their choices on which ones to emphasize, and who they choose to go on the attack against are all indicators of the way that security politics are playing out. CNN has an interactive graphic that depicts the number of times and against whom each candidate went on the offensive during the debate. The most aggressive of the night were Trump and Rubio.

Who’s toughest on terrorism?

Most of those attack from Rubio were aimed at Cruz, as the contours for what is shaping up to be the likeliest matchup between establishment and outsider wings of the GOP. Repeating a theme he’s emphasized in recent weeks, Rubio hit Cruz for his Senate vote in favor of legislation curtailing NSA metadata collection. In another line of attack, he cited Cruz’s vote for a budget that would cut defense spending, arguing that that position doesn’t correlate with Cruz’s tough talk: “You can’t carpet bomb ISIS if you don’t have planes and bombs to attack them with.”

No, Cruz didn’t reveal classified information on the debate stage

The morning after the debate, the Republican chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Richard Burr, told reporters he had directed his staff to look into whether Cruz shared classified information when he talked about the government’s ability to monitor phone records. Cruz had argued that legislative changes meant that, while “the old program covered 20 percent to 30 percent of phone numbers to search for terrorists, the new program covers nearly 100 percent.” Burr’s communications director immediately tweeted, “Cruz shouldn’t have said that.”

But alas, Burr’s staff has been told to stand down. Burr and the committee’s ranking Democrat released a statement confirming that the panel is not investigating, after all.

Ben Carson has a plan

The Ben Carson campaign has released a plan — “Seven Steps to a Safer America” —to defeat the Islamic state and secure the homeland. Much of it is pretty boilerplate — work with allies, revamp immigration and visa policies, protect the southern border. But the final point is less so. He calls for the State Department to “designate the Muslim Brotherhood and other organizations that propagate or support Islamic terrorism as terrorist organizations, and fully investigate the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood and a supporter of terrorism.”


John Amble is managing editor of War on the Rocks.


Photo credit: Gage Skidmore