Republican Candidates for President
Yesterday evening, I listened to the fifth Republican debate focused on foreign affairs. I first heard the four fourth tier candidates for the Republican nomination for the United States presidency. (A sixth and final debate will be held in mid-January.) I then divided the top tier of candidates appearing in the main card into three groupings, those above 10%, the two candidates between 3 and 5%, and then the three trailers below 3% according to an average of seven top polls in the United States conducted during December. I tended to focus most on the top four candidates. Seven Fifteen
15 day average
First Tier % %
Donald Trump Billionaire real estate mogul 33.0 35.30
Ted Cruz Texas Senator 16.1 13.38
Marco Rubio Florida Senator 12.6 12.00
Ben Carson Retired neurosurgeon 12.0 11.76
Jeb Bush Former Florida Governor 4.0 5.48
Chris Christie Former New Jersey Governor 2.9 3.08
John Kasich Ohio Governor 2.3 2.21
Carly Fiorina Former High Tech CEO 2.3 2.01
Rand Paul Kentucky Senator 2.1 2.42
Mike Huckabee Former Arkansas Governor 2.0 2.16
Lindsey Graham South Carolina Senator 0.3 1.04
George Pataki Former New York Governor 0.2 1.03
Rick Santorum ex-Pennsylvania Senator 0.2 0.87
In one sense, the polls do not count. The Republican presidential primaries do, for the state caucuses choose their respective delegates for the national convention of over 2,200 delegates in accordance with different state rules – elected at local conventions, selected from candidate’s slates, by committees or directly elected in caucuses and primaries. In another sense, the polls do count for they indicate to delegates which candidate might be a winning one, while at the same time, popularity might – and I say might – provide some indication of the divisions within a state caucus. We will have a better idea in the primaries, especially the one on the first Tuesday in March, March 1st, when ten states select their delegates. The polls are a slice of popularity in a moment in time. Senator Ted Cruz is now leading Donald Trump by a full ten points (31% to 21%) in the all-important Iowa caucus scheduled as the first in early February. The New Hampshire primary takes place later in February, but before Super Tuesday.
In this election, there is a third reason that the polls count. Donald Trump holds the threat of bolting the Republican Party, taking with him most of his supporters, if he feels he is being treated unfairly by the Republican Party establishment, an action which, if taken, is almost certain to doom the Republican chances of winning back the presidency. Last night, Trump seemed to withdraw that threat, insisting that he was “totally committed to the Republican Party.”
In the foreign affairs debate, three themes dominated. On all three, Donald Trump had proposed the most radical proposals:
- Temporarily stopping all Muslim entry into the United States;
- Increasing the intelligence services access to private and community bodies – especially mosques with suspected radical Imams;
- Focusing primarily, and even exclusively, on destroying ISIS or ISIL or Da’esh.
Donald Trump had also made three radical proposals on immigration that could be considered, to some degree, foreign policy issues:
- Build a fence along the southern border for which Mexico would be forced to pay;
- Deport all illegal immigrants in the United States;
- Refuse to take Syrian refugees of any religious stripe.
Not one of the competitors for higher office for the Republican Party thought that climate change was an important foreign policy issue, and some went out of their way to insist that proper foreign policy built on the foundation of keeping Americans safe had been sacrificed on the altar of a misguided concern with global warming. Last night, they did not debate the important international agreement on trade policy. What they concentrated on was Americans’ fears, on the perception that America was failing as a leader in the world, particularly a military leader, that the American government had over-indulged human rights protections and provided great scope for terrorists to exploit these openings and spread terror.
Climate change was not the only issue of foreign policy that was avoided. So was China as an increasing threat. So was Turkey as, under Erdoğan, it has increasingly tried to exercise its admittedly relatively weak muscles. Further, every one of the candidates seemed to agree with strengthening America’s armed forces, already larger than the rest of the armed forces in the world combined. More specifically, Senator Marco Rubio took on Senator Ted Cruz, the two real rivals for second place in the polls behind Donald Trump.
Rubio insisted that Ted Cruz had supported reductions for the American air force. Without capacity, Cruz argued, you cannot advocate increasing air strikes against ISIL or Da’esh. Rubio insisted that, “as a result of budget cuts… we are going to be left with the oldest and the smallest air force we have ever had.” Now it is true that the USAF has been gradually reducing its air capacity to the smallest since WWII, and long before Obama. But the United States can still put into the air over 5,000 aircraft. It has almost 320,000 servicemen in the USAF with another almost 8,000 reservists. The USA has 40 squadrons of fighter aircraft, though it is scheduled to have only 26. As policy, the USAF decided long ago to emphasize quality over quantity, capability over capacity, particularly given the shift to unmanned aircraft, but America has no shortage of capacity and quantity in launching as many strikes as it wants against ISIL or Da’esh.
All the candidates seemed to be running against a parody of President Obama’s and, by extension, Hilary Clinton’s foreign policy, particularly his program of destroying ISIL. That consisted of four planks:
- Hunting down and destroying ISIL militant training camps in Iraq and Syria;
- Training and equipping Iraqi and Syrian oppositional forces to combat both Assad and ISIL, but no American boots on the ground to engage the enemy in direct battles;
- Disrupt ISIL’s source of financing and ability to engage in recruitment and propaganda;
- Use diplomacy to get allies, particularly Muslim countries, on side.
Some of the candidates supported specific aspects of these four policy planks. For example, Jeb Bush insisted that Donald Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from America would undercut America’s ability to line up the 32 Muslim states organized as an alliance by Saudi Arabia. Jeb Bush dubbed Trump the “chaos candidate.” (In the undercard debate earlier, George Pataki compared Donald Trump as the 21st century candidate for the Know-Nothing Party of the 1840s.) Bush to Trump. “You’re not going to be able to insult your way to the presidency.”
But Trump may very well insult his way to secure the Republican nomination. Jeb Bush running on a program of judgment to complement strength seemed to have chosen a losing path given the Republican party members’ widespread absence of good judgment. In fact, a major difference seemed to be over whether America was to be the leader of the free world – loosely so-called – or whether America was to take on extremist bullies as if the U.S. was a lone gunslinger at the Old Corral. But the major difference was whether American troops should be on the ground engaged in the fight.
The other enemy that was still casting a long shadow was Iran, with many candidates attacking any discussions let alone cooperation or, God forbid, an agreement with Iran. And what did Trump answer in reply to the issue at the centre of the Iran debate. “Nuclear, the power, the devastation, is very important to me.” That comment alone should have ruled him out as a candidate. But remember, he is running to be the candidate of the Republican Party when he calls the Iran deal “horrible, disgusting, absolutely incompetent,” handing Iran $150 billion to sign. It proved that The Donald had
not lost his ability at invention and hyperbole. For a realistic estimate is that $50 billion in frozen assets will be released to Iran; it is likely that only a small portion of that will be available to Iran to foster and support its terrorist proxies. The Donald’s last line of the evening was his best and most hilarious: “Our country doesn’t win anymore…Nothing works in our country. If I’m elected president we will win again and we’re going to have a great great country, greater than ever before.”
If you listen to the Republican debate, except perhaps for Lindsey Graham in the undercard, you would not know that there are 3,500 Muslims in the American armed forces. You would not know that U.S. General Austin was leading special forces operations on the ground in Iraq. You would not know, as President Obama announced, that the U.S. had ramped up the fight against ISIL, increasing the pace of airstrikes and using precision takeouts to kill ISIL commanders – Abu Sayyaf, Haji Mutazz, ISIL’s second-in command; Junaid Hussain, a top online recruiter; Mohamed Emwazi, the well-publicized murderer of foreigners, finance chief Abu Saleh; senior extortionist Abu Maryam; weapons trafficker Abu Rahman al-Tunisi. Listening to the Republican debate, you would come away believing that America had withdrawn from the fight and that America has been led by a feckless and cowardly president. What happened to the idea of a bipartisan American foreign policy?
You would never know that ISIL or Da’esh had been suffering defeat after defeat – in Kirkuk, at Sinjar, at Baiji, at Kabani, at Tal Abyad – losing 40% of the territory it controlled at its peak. You would not know that John Kerry had spent the day in discussions with Putin and Russia’s foreign ministry to coordinate the attacks against Da’esh. In fact, if you came away from the debate believing that Obama was the real traitor and a secret partner of Da’esh, I would not be surprised. John Kasich (or was it George Pataki?) even said that he would punch Putin in the nose.
But the greatest focus of the debate over foreign policy, spurred clearly by the San Bernadino terrorist attack, was over the alleged policy of restricting surveillance of Americans. I lost track of the number of candidates who thought the American security apparatus had its hands tied and was not legally allowed to follow the two San Bernadino terrorists on the internet. (One was born and raised in the U.S.) Even Ted Cruz, a leading candidate, complained that the U.S., in the name of political correctness, had not monitored the Facebook account of the female San Bernadino terrorist who had called for a jihad on her Facebook page.
This is such nonsense, and the Republican candidates have to know it. The issue has not, and never has been, restricting the American security apparatus, but the efficacy of monitoring the Facebook accounts of everyone when it is so easy to disguise the person posting on Facebook and when encryption is so widely and easily available. The issue is efficacy, not legally hand tying the security apparatus. Even former Hewlett Packard C.E.O., Carly Fiorina, who should certainly have known this when she appealed for a partnership between government and the private sector in conducting surveillance, made the same accusations. For the issue is not known terrorists, but unknown ones. The problem has never been restrictions on invading someone’s privacy. But if you expect leading candidates for the Presidential office from the Republican Party to have a high regard for truth, think again. Look at Donald Trump’s absolutely mad proposal that the U.S. should shut down “our internet” in ISIS controlled areas of Iraq and Syria, as if America owned the servers and relay towers there. America could jam satellite feeds, But America would be the most to suffer.
The good news for Trump is that his support held fairly steady throughout the debate, dipping only significantly, but still only slightly, three times over the evening in spite of, or perhaps because of his insistence that America should repossess the international internet as if it was in mortgage default, and to do so to prevent extremist Islamicists using “our internet.” In spite of such silly musings, he had played it relatively safe and sane as he does periodically. And, after all, he has Conrad Black’s support, for Black is honoured to be Trump’s friend. But Conrad would have been better off supporting Ben Carson since Ben wants the National Guard to be deployed along the Canadian border.
Ted Cruz was far more uneven than Rubio, reaching above Trump at only one point when Trump dipped. Rubio took an even wilder ride, but in the latter half of the debate more than held his own. Rubio and Cruz seemed to be concentrating on each other as each of these Cuban-American candidates largely focused on one another to secure second place rather than directly take on Donald Trump. In fact, Cruz continued his campaign of buttering up to Trump and would, as one pundit said it, have agreed, or at least refused to disagree, if Trump pronounced that 2+2 = 5. Cruz attacked Rubio’s support for immigration reform and suggested that he was even a secret backer of the Obama/Clinton foreign policy. Rubio attacked Cruz for supporting limits on intelligence surveillance.
Ben Carson seemed to finally bury his candidacy as his meandering and foreign policy weaknesses showed glaringly when the debate focused on that topic. He really did say, “I do a lot of doing.” Trump, recognizing that Carson was dead in the water, now pronounced him a fine man as in a funeral service oratory after first knifing him in the back like a mafia operator and declaring that he had died of a “pathological disease.” Carly Fiorina piled the last shovel of dirt on her campaign when she accused Obama of forcefully retiring General Jack Keane early because he disagreed with Obama’s Middle east policy when Jack Keane had been retired early in 2003 by George W. Bush.
So what was I left with? Was I exhilarated by the misguided and misdirected attacks on Obama’s foreign and security policies? No, I was appalled. I prefer a more intelligent debate among those aspiring to be leaders of the most powerful country in the world today. And I am not talking about Chris Christie’s slip up in calling King Abdullah King Hussein. He knew the difference; he had been a guest of King Abdullah. Such minor slips are irrelevant. However, candidates most dedicated to truth seemed to be continually slipping in the polls as the politics of fear suffocated intelligence in the Republican Party.