It took five tries—and poll numbers plunging to the low single digits—but Jeb Bush finally had what could be described as a good debate on Tuesday night. Out of the gate in Las Vegas, he came out with clear, aggressive attacks against Donald Trump on foreign policy, and for the first time, he actually landed many of his punches. But while he called out Trump on some of his most extreme positions in the fight against ISIS, Bush failed to articulate any alternative strategy beyond being a more “serious” commander-in-chief.
Bush’s failure was emblematic of a much larger problem for the Republican Party: While Trump was the target all night, establishment Republicans offered nothing substantively different from the core values animating Trump’s candidacy: Their calls for greater “strength” and “leadership,” and for a bulked-up military, would effectively go no further than what Hillary Clinton herself has proposed.
Bush racked up the zingers against Trump from early on in the debate, painting him as an irresponsible, dangerous, and essentially absurd choice for president. He began by describing Trump’s call to ban Muslims from the country as “not a serious proposal,” and one that would alienate America’s Arab allies in the fight against ISIS. “He’s a chaos candidate, and he’d be a chaos president,” Bush concluded, to an outburst of applause.
Bush continued throughout the evening to lament Trump’s lack of seriousness, repeatedly interjecting himself to make the point again and again. When Trump defended the need to target the families of terrorists—even if they were innocent civilians—Bush denounced the idea as “just crazy,” typical of someone who is “not a serious kind of candidate”—but not as fundamentally immoral and unethical. He landed yet another tweet-worthy line shortly thereafter, when Trump went on once more about the need “strength” and “toughness” against radical Islam. “Donald,” he said,” you’re not going to be able to insult your way to the presidency.”
Bush’s basic message is that Trump is a joke, and that we need a real leader (hopefully him!) in charge instead. He voiced a sentiment that the political establishment—both Republican and Democratic—has been expressing for months, and he delivered it with more vim and verve than he has at any point so far. But at its core, it was essentially a hollow message. It assumes that it’s self-evident that Trump is an unserious, potentially dangerous candidate, and that it’s self-evident that Bush is the one real grown-up in the room.
But Bush’s attacks essentially were about style and tone—not substance. Though he lamented Trump’s lack of seriousness, he—and every other candidate, aside from Rand Paul—failed to call out the moral bankruptcy of Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from the United States and kill innocent civilians in the Middle East. At his strongest, Bush described these as ineffective policies—which they are—but not as immoral ones that defy America’s values as a nation. He failed to get to the heart of why Trump’s candidacy is so dangerous both to the GOP and to the country. That’s partly because the Republican Party has already moved so far in Trump’s direction: Bush, for instance, has called for the U.S. to accept Syrian refugees, but only so long as they’re Christian.
In terms of actual policy, Bush—like the others—failed to articulate a vision for change in the fight against ISIS that was fundamentally different than what Clinton is calling for. He called for the need to create a no-fly zone in Syria, to arm Kurdish fighters directly, and to embed more U.S. fighters in the Iraqi military, all while working “in concert with the Arab nations.” Many of those measures go farther than what the Obama administration has committed to. But they conform completely with the plan that Clinton has laid out to stop ISIS, as she outlined in a major national-security speech after the Paris attacks. Bush simply overlaid these shared, bipartisan priorities with an anodyne call for leadership—just a more “serious” version than what Trump represents. “Leadership, leadership is not about attacking people and disparaging people,” Bush said. “Leadership is about creating a serious strategy to deal with the threat of our time.”
The truth is that, for all the bellicose talk and fear-mongering about our anti-terrorism strategy, the Republican candidates don’t have a different game plan for fighting ISIS in Syria. The debate did reveal the new extremes that some of its presidential candidates are willing to float: Carson and Trump both defended the need to bomb innocent civilians, potentially committing war crimes overseas, for instance. But when pushed on the details of a real strategy, the candidates came up short.
Pressed on an earlier comment that he would “carpet-bomb ISIS into oblivion,” Ted Cruz, for instance, revealed that he either didn’t know what carpet-bombing was, or was just using hawkish rhetoric to defend targeted strikes against ISIS, which is what we’re doing anyway. Aside from Rand Paul—the outlier who’s polling even lower than Bush—the Republican candidates essentially reiterated the same hollow message, simply stressing that Democrats (along with Trump) lacked the necessary leadership. As Marco Rubio said: “We must lead. We are the most powerful nation in the world. We need to begin to act like it again.”
While Bush and the other establishment candidates may distance themselves from the most extreme and abhorrent tactics that Trump is vouching for, their empty call for leadership ultimately only echoes his core message.