The Republicans’ fifth debate of this cycle, and the last of this year, held at Sheldon Adelson’s Venetian Hotel and Casino in the heart of Las Vegas, was a bit of a hot mess – even if CNN’s Wolf Blitzer did an amazingly good job of containing the chaos that everyone expected – with the help of the highly-conservative but calm and lawyerly Hugh Hewitt. Those two, with the help of CNN’s Dana Bash, made sure that everyone had their say, that those who ran on, or tried to, were reined in, and that those who didn’t answer the question posed to them were asked the same question again, and again, and again. There was nowhere to hide.
That may have been the problem. Much was said that probably should have remained hidden. After the debate, those who follow the issues, had time to “digest” what was said, and some of it was indigestible:
Chris Christie would shoot down a Russian plane if it violated a no-fly zone, and he doesn’t see Russia as a true ally in the fight against the Islamic State.
The New Jersey governor said on “CBS This Morning” Wednesday that under a President Christie the rules of engagement “would be very clear… if they go into our no-fly zone after we have warned them to stay out, then they would be shot down.”
On the debate stage, Rand Paul said that would cause World War III. Paul was appalled, so to speak:
“Goodness, what we want in a leader is someone with judgment, not someone who is so reckless as to stand on the stage and say, ‘Yes, I’m jumping up and down; I’m going to shoot down Russian planes.’ Russia already flies in that airspace. It may not be something we’re in love with, the fact that they’re there, but they were invited by Iraq and by Syria to fly in that airspace,” Paul said.
“And so if we announce we’re going to have a no-fly zone, and others have said this. Hillary Clinton is also for it. It is a recipe for disaster. It’s a recipe for World War III. We need to confront Russia from a position of strength, but we don’t need to confront Russia from a point of recklessness that would lead to war,” he continued.
Christie thought it over. Now what? On Wednesday he said that won’t cause World War III because we’re already in that war, which seemed dubious:
Host Charlie Rose asked if Christie had any problems shooting down a Russian plane because they’re our allies in the fight against ISIL. “You’re assuming that Russia is our ally in the fight against ISIS and I do not believe that is the case,” Christie said.
“I think the Secretary of State feels that way,” Rose said.
“That makes it absolutely certain that I’m right if the Secretary of State thinks that. The fact Russia has been stealing our lunch money the entire time from the Obama administration from Hillary Clinton’s reset button to going into Crimea and Ukraine and to the activities in Syria to propping up their puppet, Assad,” Christie said. “ISIS is simply not being attacked by Russia. Russia is in Syria along with Iran to prop up Assad.”
Okay, but if so, what do we do? That seemed a reasonable question:
Rose asked Christie what his plan would be to get rid of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. Christie responded that there needed to be discussion among NATO allies, Arab allies and other coalition partners. Rose asked if that would include Russia.
“Listen, Charlie, I know that you’re obsessed with Russia this morning and I’m just simply not. I don’t think Russia has earned the right,” Christie said.
“No, Governor, you’re the one talking about shooting down their planes,” Rose responded.
That only made Christie testy:
“You asked about a no-fly zone and that is the definition of a no-fly zone. If that offends folks in the U.N. crowd I’m sorry but America needs to assert itself again, and playing the weak hand this president has played with for this country, we now have Russian troops in Crimea, and we have them disrupting Ukraine,” Christie said.
Ah, so this is not the time to be politically correct. Shoot down a Russian plane or two. What are they gonna do, go to war with us? And if they do, well, we’re already in that war – or something.
Some might find all that alarming, but this is just odd:
Ohio Gov. John Kasich employed some colorful rhetoric on foreign policy during Tuesday night’s CNN debate, saying it was time the U.S. “punched the Russians in the nose.”
“Finally, Hugh, in regard to Syria, understand that Assad is an ally of Iran who wants to extend that Shi’i radicalism all the way across the Middle East,” he said. “He has to go. And for the Russians, frankly, it’s time that we punched the Russians in the nose.”
No one knows what he means by that, militarily, but no one pays attention to John Kasich anyway, so this may not matter much, and this may matter more:
While discussing Donald Trump’s comments that he would support killing the family members of Islamic State militants, Fox News host Sean Hannity on Tuesday night said he wasn’t sure he supports all of the treaties governing war in the Geneva Conventions.
During the Tuesday night Republican debate, Trump confirmed that he would have no problem going after terrorists’ families. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) disagreed with Trump, noting that the tactic would violate the Geneva Conventions.
During a post-debate interview with Hannity, Paul again denounced Trump’s comments and said that killing the innocent family members of terrorists would not be American.
“He says other things like, ‘Well, we should kill the terrorists’ families,'” Paul told Hannity after discussing surveillance issues. “So we’re going to kill their 2-year-old kids, their 4-year-old kids? And the thing is that to kill bystanders and non-combatants goes against what America stands for – and goes against the Geneva Conventions.”
Invite Rand Paul on your Fox News show and odd things will happen:
“I’m not so sure if I agree with all the Geneva Conventions and whether or not other countries follow those rules. There’s a separate debate,” Hannity said, suggesting that the U.S. should perhaps break the Geneva Conventions. “But there’s an executive order, I believe President Ford at the time that prohibits the assassination of foreign leaders. I think if we got an opportunity to take out an evil foreign leader, that we’d be wise to do so.”
People are beginning to digest what was said in Vegas, what was actually being proposed, and some got indigestion:
Following the Tuesday night Republican presidential debate, Fox News host Bill O’Reilly and contributor Charles Krauthammer debated whether Donald Trump was serious when he said he would kill the family members of Islamic State militants. The real estate mogul has previously said he would go after terrorists’ families, and on Tuesday night confirmed he would be open to such a strategy, despite Sen. Rand Paul’s (R-KY) note that doing so would violate the Geneva Convention. Trump responded to Paul’s remark by asking, “They can kill us, but we can’t kill them?”
Following the debate, Krauthammer said Trump’s defense was “nonsensical.”
O’Reilly argued that Trump likely would not kill terrorists’ family members, and only says he would in order to win votes.
“Trump never goes and says, ‘I’m going to kill the family members.’ He says, ‘I’m going to take them out’ or ‘I’m going to treat them rough.’ You know what I’m talking about,” O’Reilly told Krauthammer.
“No, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Krauthammer hit back.
O’Reilly had to explain:
“It’s designed to get votes. It’s designed to get people emotionally allied with him,” O’Reilly said in response.
“I don’t care what the motivation is, that I want to elicit an emotion. He says this stuff,” Krauthammer said, adding that Trump did not take the opportunity during the debate to clarify that he would not actually go after innocent family members.
“You believe that Donald Trump would murder people if he were President of the United States?” O’Reilly then asked.
“If he doesn’t want to, why did he say it?” Krauthammer asked in response.
That’s a good question. Maybe CNN did too good a job of drawing these candidates out, because they got pretty far out there, as Slate’s Fred Kaplan notes here:
Donald Trump, the front-runner, was asked to elaborate on his proposal to shut down the Internet to keep ISIS from recruiting on social media. First, he affirmed that this was still his position, saying, “I don’t want them using our Internet” (as if the Internet has a nationality), then added that he was “not talking about closing the Internet,” just “those parts” of the Internet in Iran and Syria (as if each country occupied a sector, some digital latitude and longitude, of the World Wide Web).
Ted Cruz, who seems to have signed a nonaggression pact with Trump, was asked about his hair-raising proposal to “carpet-bomb ISIS to oblivion.” Did this mean, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked, that he’d kill thousands of civilians in towns like Raqqa, Syria? Cruz explained that he would “carpet-bomb where ISIS troops are, not a city” – ignoring (not knowing?) that ISIS formations mainly are in cities. They don’t hang around campfires at night in the desert, forming nifty targets for bombers flying above.
Cruz also outlined his plan for defeating ISIS. “My strategy is simple,” he said. “We win, they lose.” How would he translate this bold idea into action? “We will utterly destroy them by targeting the bad guys.”
Why didn’t Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton think of that?
The term for this sort of thing is errant nonsense, but it was errant nonsense with a purpose beyond actual reality, because Obama was the actual target:
To judge from the statements of all nine Republicans, you would think that Obama cowers under his desk, afraid to fling an insult at a terrorist, much less drop a bomb. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who once hugged Obama for bringing him federal aid in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, now called the commander in chief a “feckless weakling.” Cruz and Ben Carson blamed this weakness on an excess of “political correctness,” citing his refusal to identify the enemy as “radical Islamic terrorists” – as if uttering those three words while dropping 9,000 bombs on ISIS targets would have made a bigger impact on the war than dropping 9,000 bombs (as U.S. war planes have done).
They just took this up a notch:
Apparently, he has done nothing to promote national security and everything to set it back decades. Jeb Bush accused Obama of failing to leave a few thousand troops in Iraq (when, in fact, the status of forces agreement signed by Bush’s brother required the complete withdrawal of all troops by the end of 2011). Christie said, puzzlingly, that Obama’s nuclear deal sired the creation of ISIS.
Now even the space-time continuum doesn’t matter. Perhaps the passage of Obamacare caused the Civil War, but Kaplan sees a pattern here:
One thing was clear from this debate. None of these nine candidates had any remotely plausible ideas on how to defeat ISIS, or prevent terrorist attacks on American soil, beyond what Obama is already doing – except doing it louder, or with a scarier scowl, or maybe doing more of it.
Even the one exception to that was nonsense:
There was a potentially interesting colloquy between Sens. Cruz and Marco Rubio about the tension between privacy and surveillance – specifically, the USA Freedom Act, the reform bill that ended the National Security Agency’s collection and storage of telephone “metadata,” the files that track the frequency and duration (but not the contents) of phone calls between one number and another. Rubio, who voted against the bill, said it robbed the NSA of a vital tool in tracking terrorists. Cruz, who voted for it, said the bill added new measures that enlarged the agency’s toolbox. The old metadata program, he said, tracked landline calls; the new one would track those of cellphones.
That was interesting, but bullshit:
Cruz is wrong that the bill added new surveillance measures. The NSA had always retrieved metadata of cellphone calls (at times, only cellphone calls). Rubio is wrong that the reform bill – which merely transfers the files back to the phone companies (which created them) and requires the NSA to request them through a secret court – is a huge intelligence loss. He failed to note (maybe he doesn’t know) that the idea for this reform came from Gen. Keith Alexander, then-director of the NSA, who publicly testified – and privately assured many officials – that the slight delay in gaining access to these records would have no impact on counterterrorism. He also admitted that the metadata program hadn’t been very successful at tracking down terrorists in any case. (Other surveillance programs, which the USA Freedom Act did not alter, have been effective.)
Okay, disregard the set-to. Don’t expect anything that was said to make sense:
Christie kept citing his work as a federal prosecutor, bringing terrorists to justice in the wake of 9/11. He nabbed them back then; he’ll nab them as president. But did he mean to suggest that ISIS is a law-enforcement problem or that its fighters should be processed through criminal courts? Doubtful, but if he didn’t, why does he think his experience has relevance?
John Kasich, who’s been relatively moderate when it comes to sending thousands of troops to the Middle East or getting stuck in the middle of the region’s civil wars, suddenly bellowed that America has to go into the war against ISIS “massively, just as in the first Gulf War.” A half-million troops pushed Saddam Hussein’s troops out of Kuwait in that war. Is that what he’s really calling for?
Fiorina’s plan to win the war: “Bring back the warrior class” – by which she means Gens. David Petraeus, Jack Keane, and Stanley McChrystal, who were all “retired early because they told Obama things he didn’t want to hear.” First, Keane retired during the Bush administration. McChrystal had to go because he insulted NATO allies – with whom he was supposed to be forming a coalition in Afghanistan – in the presence of a Rolling Stone reporter. Petraeus – well, we all know what happened there. Does Fiorina really think there are no other warriors among the U.S. Army’s generals?
Cruz said, twice, “Iran has declared war on us,” which must come as a surprise to parties all round.
This was a hot mess and Kaplan comments on the few sensible moments:
Bush railed at Trump’s idea to keep all Muslims out of the United States, noting that we need moderate Muslims to help fight ISIS – that the Kurds and other allies against ISIS are Muslims (something that many Americans might not grasp). Sen. Rand Paul said that another Trump idea – to kill not just terrorists but their families – would require pulling out of the Geneva Conventions and would also sire enormous backlash. Paul also made the valid point that it was infeasible to go to war with ISIS and simultaneously demand Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s ouster because, horrible as Assad is, his removal would create a vacuum that ISIS would fill. (In his only logical comment of the night, Trump said the same thing.)
But Trump had the last word. “Our country doesn’t win anymore,” he said in his closing statement. “Nothing works in our country. If I’m elected president, we will win again. We will win a lot. We will have a great, great country.”
What the hell is he talking about?
Who knows? Questions like that occur after the fact, when there’s time to sit back and digest what was said. Most of this was indigestible, but Salon’s Sean Illing has his hero from that evening:
Rand Paul deserves a round of applause. The Kentucky senator may be wrong about a lot of things, but he’s consistent and he has an actual governing philosophy. More importantly, his presence in the Republican race has clarified just how vacuous and unprincipled the other candidates are.
Illing liked Paul’s opening statement:
“The question is, how do we keep America safe from terrorism? Trump says we ought to close that Internet thing. The question really is, what does he mean by that? Like they do in North Korea? Like they do in China? Rubio says we should collect all Americans’ records all of the time. The Constitution says otherwise. I think they’re both wrong. I think we defeat terrorism by showing them that we do not fear them. I think if we ban certain religions, if we censor the Internet, I think that at that point the terrorists will have won. Regime change hasn’t won. Toppling secular dictators in the Middle East has only led to chaos and the rise of radical Islam. I think if we want to defeat terrorism, I think if we truly are sincere about defeating terrorism, we need to quit arming the allies of ISIS. If we want to defeat terrorism, the boots on the ground – the boots on the ground need to be Arab boots on the ground. As commander-in-chief, I will do whatever it takes to defend America. But in defending America, we cannot lose what America stands for. Today is the Bill of Rights’ anniversary. I hope we will remember that and cherish that in the fight on terrorism.”
There’s nothing heroic about Paul’s proclamation, but it’s honest and grounded in recent history. Almost every other candidate on that stage is too cowardly to admit this, however. The Republican Party has become pathologically militaristic, and Paul is the only person willing to push back, who will concede that the last fifteen years actually happened.
Throughout the debate, Paul was the lone voice of reason. When Rubio, a small government conservative, called for more troops and more spending, Paul noted his fiscal hypocrisy. When practically every other candidate endorsed arming the “moderates” in Syria, he made the obvious point: “I think that by arming the allies of ISIS, the Islamic rebels against Assad, we created a safe space or made the space bigger for ISIS to grow. I think those who have wanted regime change have made a mistake. When we toppled Gadhafi in Libya, I think that was a mistake. I think ISIS grew stronger, we had a failed state, and we were more at risk.”
When Christie blustered about no-fly zones and shooting down Russian planes, Paul pounced: “Well, I think if you’re in favor of World War III, you have your candidate… My goodness, what we want in a leader is someone with judgment, not someone who is so reckless as to stand on the stage and say, ‘Yes, I’m jumping up and down; I’m going to shoot down Russian planes.'”
Someone had to say these things, not that it matters:
Paul has virtually no chance of winning the Republican nomination. To win, Paul had to energize the libertarian wing of the party, and he’s failed to do that. Part of the problem is that candidates like Trump and Cruz have emerged as the preferred “outsider” candidates, leaving little space for Paul.
That may be the hardest thing to digest, and Brent Budowsky reports that many ordinary Republicans are worried about that, now not worried about a brokered convention but a runaway convention:
A more likely scenario than a brokered convention is a runaway convention, where the establishment loses control of the convention and the outcome as delegates from the anti-establishment wing take over, threatening first a convention walk-out and then a third-party candidacy if the will of their majority is denied.
The potential nightmare for the GOP establishment is compounded by a second fact, one whose importance is dramatically underestimated by political analysts and the media: The political views of anti-establishment GOP voters and candidates are dramatically out of touch with mainstream America. A runaway convention taken over by anti-establishment delegates would create high odds of a dramatic Election Day victory by Hillary Clinton large enough to return control of the Senate, and potentially the House, to Democrats.
The political views of anti-establishment GOP voters and candidates are dramatically out of touch with mainstream America? Yeah, probably few want to shoot down Russian planes and start World War III – or murder the two-year-old children of terrorists and all the rest:
Consider Trump, who is sometimes called “Teflon Don” by pundits who falsely suggest that rules of traditional politics do not apply to him. As with many half-truths, it is the untrue half that becomes destructive, in this case to Republicans. While the real estate mogul may be called “Teflon Don” in GOP primaries, he would become a Velcro death ray that could destroy Republicans in the general election. The very reasons that make Trump popular in the GOP make him likely to lose in a landslide to Clinton, according to polls. Ditto Cruz.
This, then, might be a critical time:
The pressure from GOP leaders will momentarily become excruciating on lagging candidates such as Jeb Bush to withdraw from the race and endorse a center-right candidate such as Marco Rubio, who consistently runs slightly ahead of Clinton in polls.
If GOP barons wait too long, they may find themselves helplessly watching a runaway GOP convention that’s been taken over by anti-establishment forces – making their worst nightmares come true on Election Day.
It may already be too late now however, and they’ll find that hard to digest. On the other hand, in France, a “digestif” is served after a meal and after the coffee course – the pousse-café – to aid digestion – brandy, cognac, Armagnac – that sort of thing. Maybe it’s now time to drink heavily. That may be the only way to digest all of this. A little cognac sounds good right about now.