Visions of two Americas emerged from the 2016 presidential field on Saturday, at the Democratic debate and at Republican campaign events, as the candidates sought to project leadership after the Paris attacks and maneuver for political advantage in a rare moment when national security held voters’ attention. A dark portrait of a vulnerable homeland -- impotent against Islamic State militants, susceptible against undocumented refugees and isolated in a world of fraying alliances -- came into sharp relief as several Republicans seized on the crisis to try to elevate terrorism into a defining issue in the 2016 election.
About 10 months ago, after terrorists attacked the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris, killing 11 people, congressional Republicans quickly began looking for ways to blame American leadership for the violence. It was reflexive; it was immediate; and it was ugly. The GOP reactions were practically a case study in how U.S. officials shouldn't respond to an attack.
Friday night's terrorism in Paris was, by every metric, deadlier and more devastating, offering Americans an opportunity to speak with one voice while extending support to the nation's oldest ally.
It was an opportunity many leading Republicans chose not to take. The New York Times reported over the weekend:
It's an odd strategic choice, given that the Republican field is dominated by candidates with no meaningful experience in or understanding of foreign affairs, and nearly all of whom continue to think the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq was a great idea.
And yet, it was quite a weekend for GOP chest-thumping. Ted Cruz issued a statement suggesting U.S. military strikes against ISIS targets should be less concerned about "civilian casualties." John McCain said the rise of ISIS, an outgrowth of the disastrous war McCain celebrated, should be blamed on President Obama's foreign policy.
My personal favorite was Mike Huckabee's call for the cancellation of the international nuclear agreement with Iran, which is hilariously wrong on all sorts of levels. (Huckabee should probably have someone on his staff who can explain to him that Iran and ISIS are bitter enemies.)
The one reaction nearly every Republican candidate agreed on is a refusal to accept Syrian refugees -- as if the real lesson of the Paris attacks is feeling less sympathy for ISIS's victims. (Some Republicans have argued that some refugees are acceptable, so long as U.S. officials discriminate on the basis of faith.)
The Washington Post's Dave Weigel had a take that rings true: the Republican's rush toward "stop letting in refugees" is reminiscent of "the 'travel ban now or we all die of Ebola' fad of last year."
It's a good line, which struck me as salient in more ways than one. To be sure, there are too many reactionary, overly simplistic attitudes on the right, which seem to give Republicans some emotional satisfaction without much regard for responsible policymaking. But there's also the unnerving track record of many Republican officials -- including would-be presidents -- who seem to fall to pieces every time there's a crisis. The benefit of a lengthy national campaign is that it gives voters a chance to see who's made of sterner stuff, and who isn't.
The GOP's responses to Friday night's bloodshed was a discouraging reminder of a party that still doesn't know what to do or say when mature leadership is required.
Postscript: It's worth emphasizing that in Saturday night's debate for Democratic presidential candidates, each of the three contenders agreed that help for Syrian refugees remains unaffected by Friday's crisis.