At every turn, this year’s presidential campaign has proved conventional wisdom wrong. The aftermath of the Paris attacks might be another example.
As soon as the attacks were over, a chorus of (establishment) Republican voices predicted that the new focus on national security and terrorism would change the dynamic of the Republican race. This was the tipping point, they declared, that would finally usher out the outsiders leading the polls — Donald Trump and Ben Carson — in favor of more serious, experienced candidates.
“As the Republican base sobers up,” Katon Dawson, the former chair of the South Carolina Republican Party, told Politico, “the losers are going to be Donald Trump and Ben Carson.”
The theory was that the Paris attacks would focus Republican voters’ minds like a hanging. They’d end their flirtation with the angry populists to look for a candidate who was vetted, had deeper knowledge of foreign policy, who was, in short, a more plausible commander in chief.
Some of the candidates are banking on that happening. Jeb Bush, who has failed to move up in the polls despite spending close to $20 million on TV ads, gave a foreign-policy speech at the military college The Citadel on Wednesday.
“If these attacks remind us of anything,” Bush said, “it is that we are living in serious times that require serious leadership.”
But in many respects, Bush’s answer to ISIS was a more aggressive version of what the Obama administration is doing. Bush wants to conduct more airstrikes, commit more special forces and — here’s where he differs from the president — create a no-fly zone.
Most of the other Republican candidates also say they’d be willing to commit ground forces to fight ISIS, but they don’t say how many. And they all say the bulk of the ground forces should come from allies in the region. This despite no indication that allies in the Middle East are willing to send their “boots on the ground” to fight ISIS.
As Olivier Roy, a professor at the European University Institute, pointed out in a New York Times opinion piece this week, the countries that would be the United States’ allies in this fight have other fish to fry. Destroying ISIS is not their top priority. Turkey cares more about the Kurds; Saudi Arabia cares more about defeating Iran; Iran cares more about protecting Syrian President Bashar Assad, as does Russia, which has been fighting the moderate opposition in Syria instead of ISIS.
Defeating the Islamic State is complicated, and it doesn’t lend itself to simple campaign slogans. Yet the one Republican message that seemed to resonate louder than all the others was Donald Trump’s simple, but profane solution:
“Bomb the s*** out of them.”
The other Republicans candidates have been less bellicose.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who has made foreign affairs the centerpiece of his campaign, has yet to schedule a speech about ISIS, but he has called the fight a “clash of civilizations.” And, like the rest of the GOP field, he has called for a pause in the resettlement of refugees from Syria to the U.S. (One of the Paris attackers came through Greece posing as a Syrian refugee.)
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who has been needling Rubio over his more moderate stance on immigration and has made stopping illegal immigration a focus of his campaign, is preparing to introduce a bill this week that would bar Syrian refugees from coming to the U.S.
“It is the height of lunacy for a government official to welcome in tens of thousands of refugees when we know that among them will be ISIS terrorists,” Cruz said Wednesday.
John Kasich, the Ohio governor, also gave a foreign policy speech this week. He called for, among other things, a new federal agency to promote “core Judeo-Christian values.”
It looks like the Republicans’ answer to ISIS has come right back to the issue that has dominated the GOP primary debate so far — immigration.
“Wake up and smell the falafel,” said Mike Huckabee, who is calling for a ban on “all visas for travelers from countries with ISIS presence.”
Ever since ISIS began beheading Americans, national security and terrorism rocketed to the top of the list of concerns for Republican voters. And they’ve stayed there. If there was a libertarian, noninterventionist moment in the Republican race, it is long over. And Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul’s single-digit level of support is proof of that.
So, is there any evidence that the Paris attacks have changed the dynamic of the GOP race? None yet. To the contrary, the few polls since the attacks show Trump getting stronger, not weaker.
The latest Reuters-Ipsos poll has Trump still on top — with 33 percent of the Republican vote. Thirty-six percent of Republicans say they trust Trump the most to handle terrorism. Marco Rubio is second with 17 percent. Ben Carson, the other outsider in the race, saw his support slump after he had trouble naming the allies he’d call on to form a coalition.
The normal rules of politics appear to apply to Carson, but not to Trump.
Once again, establishment Republicans — and the media — have underestimated Trump’s macho appeal to the blue-collar base of the GOP. During this entire campaign, Republican voters haven’t been in the mood to listen to so-called “experts.”
And Trump is proving once again that saying something with conviction beats nuance every time.
That’s why “bomb the s*** out of them” sounds pretty good to Republican voters right now.