WASHINGTON – The impact of the Paris attacks on the Republican presidential race may turn out to be minimal, especially since the establishment candidates aren’t making any more sense than outsiders Donald Trump and Ben Carson.
Theoretically, a deadly rampage by Islamic State terrorists ought to make Republican voters think twice about presidential hopefuls who have zero experience in government and no expertise in foreign or military affairs. But the contenders who hold or held high office are offering little more than bellicose rhetoric and overblown pledges of toughness.
Not that it’s easy to match Trump for hyperbole. “Refugees from Syria are now pouring into our great country,” he said on Twitter. “Who knows who they are – some could be ISIS. Is our president insane?”
But Chris Christie, who should know better, went not just over the top but around the bend. He said all Syrian refugees should be turned away, including “orphans under 5.” As governor of New Jersey, maybe he’ll order a security sweep of the Garden State’s elementary school playgrounds.
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For the record, Syrian refugees are not “pouring” into the United States. There’s hardly even a trickle: Since the civil war began, slightly more than 2,000 refugees have been admitted. Compare our meager total with the estimated 2 million Syrians taking refuge in Turkey or the hundreds of thousands flooding into Europe. Boosting the number to 10,000 over the next year, as Obama plans, would still mean that the U.S. contribution to alleviating one of the worst refugee crises since World War II doesn’t amount to a drop in the bucket. I could describe in detail the lengthy pre-entry vetting process, which can take up to two years, but why bother? As far as the GOP field is concerned, generosity of spirit is for losers.
Carson’s response to the Islamic State is, unsurprisingly, vague and off-the-wall. He wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post calling for a military strategy virtually identical to President Barack Obama’s, augmented by “a multi-pronged communications strategy that leverages our strengths in media production and messaging, combined with cutting off traditional access routes to social media for radical Islamist groups.” He seems to mean we should create a really cool smartphone app.
But Marco Rubio, too, called for a dramatic escalation in social-media warfare. He said Sunday that “where we strike them, we capture or kill their leaders, we videotape the operations, we publicize them, because this is a group that heavily uses propaganda to attract fighters and donors from around the world.” And John Kasich proposed a new government agency to promote “Judeo-Christian Western values” to the world.
Lindsey Graham had the best response to Kasich’s brainstorm: “I think that was the Crusades.”
Jeb Bush, the ultimate establishment candidate, seemed to sense both opportunity and peril. “The United States should not delay in leading a global coalition to take out ISIS with overwhelming force,” he said in a speech Wednesday. “Militarily, we need to intensify our efforts in the air – and on the ground.”
Coming from anyone else, those words might strike Republican voters as tough and sober. Coming from a candidate named Bush, however, they could portend a geopolitical blunder of historic proportions. Perhaps that is why Bush is vague on how many U.S. ground troops he would send and what they would do, saying he would rely on the judgment of the professional soldiers advising him.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because all the establishment GOP candidates pledge to rely on the generals to tell them how many troops to send. Obama says he follows the generals’ counsel, too.
Rogue candidate Trump, of course, needs no advice. He says he will “bomb the [expletive] out of [ISIS],” applauds the fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin is doing the same and vows to destroy the oil fields that provide much of the Islamic State’s wealth.
He says all of this in typically bombastic fashion. His claim that he will “win” by sheer force of personality is deeply unserious. But the actual policies he rants about may resonate with GOP voters: Rely on air power, get other countries to put troops on the ground, take no chances with refugees, talk really tough.
Two new polls of New Hampshire Republicans, conducted since the Paris attacks by WBUR of Boston and Fox News, show that Rubio may be doing a little better in that state and Carson a little worse. But Trump remains far ahead of the pack. Plus ca change.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.