Tuesday night’s fifth Republican primary debate condensed into two hours what the candidates have spent the past month forging into partisan consensus: the myth that the November killings in Paris, France (a different country), and the subsequent killings in San Bernardino, California (the first of over 300 mass shootings in the U.S. this year to be carried out by Islamists), have radically altered America’s security outlook.
Whether or not the two attacks reflect an increase in the signal level of international jihadi terrorism, Republicans have decided that radical steps must be taken domestically to control and limit the Muslim population—and that the attacks themselves were the product not of blowback and conditions abroad, but of insufficient presidential resolve.
I’ll use Chris Christie to illustrate the point, but just about every candidate had a similar moment. “On ISIS, let’s be clear, the president needs to be a force that is trusted in the world,” Christie fretted, later calling Obama a “feckless weakling.” It is an article of faith on the right that Christie is correct about this—that, as he said, “Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, through their foreign policy, have betrayed the American people, because the weakness they’ve displayed has led to Putin’s incursions in the Middle East and in eastern Europe, and has led to significant problems in the Middle East as well, and the death and murder of lots of folks.”
The irony, though, is that beyond the xenophobic panic now gripping the Republican Party, the candidates are putting forth no materially different strategic approaches to combating jihadist organizations like the Islamic State. This odd fact raises the crucial but uncomfortable question of what, beyond that xenophobic panic, Republicans are offering voters as a departure from the national-security status quo.
The attacks in Paris have provided us a window into an alternate reality where a Democrat was president on September 11, 2001. Due in large part to what you might call a consensus of decency, which held that President George W. Bush should not be blamed for the 9/11 attacks, Bush’s approval ratings spiked to a modern high of 90 percent in the aftermath, dwindling by about two-thirds over seven years as the country gained greater perspective on his national-security and foreign policies.
Because Republicans shattered that consensus of decency when partisan control over the White House flipped, the public’s perception of President Obama’s handling of terrorism is prone to wild swings.
Had Al Gore been president on September 11, it’s likely that he would have invaded Afghanistan with as much urgency as Bush did. It’s also likely that congressional Republicans, and Republican presidential hopefuls, would have lambasted his strategy while offering little in the way of substantive criticism.
The immediate political appeal of such an approach is obvious. Republicans are vying not for the presidency at the moment, but for the presidential nomination within their own party. Rallying Islamophobic voters into their camps is essentially the task at hand. But in the longer term, the political merits of this strategy are much less clear. We have little evidence that blustering about the mostly imagined threat of terrorism is on its own enough to flip political control of the presidency. We do know that legitimate foreign crises can shape domestic politics, but the recent examples of this phenomenon do not portend well for the current Republican strategy.
In 2006 and 2008, Democrats won resounding electoral victories, thanks in large part to the failure of the Iraq War. But that failure was paired with a proposal from the opposition party to dramatically change the course of foreign policy. Specifically, Democrats proposed to end the war in Iraq, and the larger Bush doctrine, while Republicans proposed to continue it.
Whether Obama’s foreign policy has been a success or failure over all is a matter interpretation. What isn’t up for debate is the proposition that Republicans (with the exception of Senator Lindsey Graham, who is polling at about one percent) are now proposing a dramatic change of course.
As the New Republic’s Suzy Khimm noted, Republicans in last night’s debate “failed to articulate a vision for change in the fight against ISIS that was fundamentally different than what [Hillary] Clinton is calling for.” Republicans have at times couched calls for incremental intensification of our current anti-terror efforts as a radical departure from the status quo. Some have called for creating a no-fly zone in Syria. But as Khimm notes, this “conform[s] completely with the plan Clinton has laid out.”
Fear-mongering and waving the bloody shirt are obviously nothing new to the Republican Party. They used both to great effect to preserve their control of government and foreign policy in the middle years of the Bush presidency. But fear-mongering for the sake of political power alone is a mostly untested approach, and may prove of little effect in the general election against the candidate most trusted to fight terrorism, who happens to be articulating the same vision.