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January 25, 2016 6:47 am

The Scrap Goes On

avatar by Heather Robinson

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Top-tier GOP candidates debated a range of issues, including foreign policy, in Thursday night's Republican primary debate on the Fox Business network. Photo: YouTube screenshot.

Top-tier GOP candidates debated a range of issues, including foreign policy, in Thursday night’s Republican primary debate on the Fox Business network. Photo: YouTube screenshot.

A screenwriter would be hard pressed to create a more entertaining cast of characters than those who starred in last Thursday evening’s Republican presidential candidates’ debate, with fierce scrapping among candidates Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Donald Trump, and Jeb Bush — with Chris Christie, Jon Kasich and Ben Carson along for the ride — promising to give Hillary Clinton a good fight in a general election.

What will happen in the next installment – the seventh Republican candidates’ debate on January 28, in which Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly and Trump will face off again. Which of these characters will win the Iowa caucus, just 10 days from today? The drama is reaching a crescendo!

On stage in South Carolina we saw their personalities emerge yet again: Rubio, the earnest young intellectual; Trump, the scene-stealing, populist bully; Christie, the deft and opportunistic operator; Carson, the principled, soft-spoken, brilliant neurosurgeon; Kasich, the folksy, can-do Ohio governor who promises to deliver the lynchpin state; Cruz, the intellectual nativist whose possible pandering to the Republican Party’s antisemitic fringe (more on this further down in this post) belies his brilliant command of facts and language; and Bush, the gentlemanly, capable Florida governor who, perhaps like Carson, at times seems like a little too much of a nice guy for this particular fight.

Though the focus of the debate, hosted by Fox Business, was supposed to be the economy, events unfolding over the previous few days ensured that international affairs stayed at the forefront. (Since Mideast affairs are an area of special interest for me, this commentary will focus predominantly on that area. I will also include some of my own opinion/analysis).

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Out of the starting gate, moderators Maria Bartiromo and Neil Cavuto of Fox Business directed foreign policy questions to Christie, Bush, Rubio and Carson.

Some of the Republicans’ answers referenced President Obama’s State of the Union Address last Tuesday.

(For those who missed the final SOTU, President Obama stressed that the US is still overwhelmingly the world’s superpower, and pointed out that his administration effectively hunted down and killed Osama bin Laden and other terrorists. He characterized the “rhetoric … about our enemies getting stronger and America getting weaker” as “political hot air” and said, “…as we focus on destroying ISIL, over-the-top claims that this is World War III just play into their hands.”)

In responding to Bartiromo’s and Cavuto’s security and foreign policy questions, several Republican candidates offered answers that characterized the threat from Islamist extremists as very different from Obama’s characterization of the threat.

Rubio’s response was straightforward: “[Obama] doesn’t understand the threat in ISIS. He consistently underestimates it but I do not. There is a war against ISIS, not just against ISIS but against radical jihadist terrorists, and it is a war that they win or we win.”

Rubio also characterized Obama’s foreign policy as believing that America “needs to be cut down to size,” adding, “And that’s how you get a foreign policy where we cut deals with our enemies like Iran and we betray our allies like Israel …”

In a thought-provoking answer, Carson characterized Islamist extremism as a new type of threat that can’t be compared to that posed by traditional nation states.

In response to Bartiromo’s question about how Carson, as president, would deal with a terror network that is neither a country nor a government, he answered, “You know, I find it really quite fascinating some of the president’s proclamations. The fact of the matter is he doesn’t realize that we now live in the 21st century, and that war is very different … Not armies massively marching on each other and air forces, but now we have dirty bombs and we have cyber attacks and we have people who will be attacking our electrical grid. … And we have enemies who are obtaining nuclear weapons that they can explode in our exoatmosphere and destroy our electrical grid.

“I mean, just think about a scenario like that. They explode a dirty bomb, we have an electromagnetic pulse. They hit us with a cyber attack simultaneously and dirty bombs. Can you imagine the chaos that would ensue at that point? He needs to recognize that those kinds of things are, in fact, an existential threat to us.”

I appreciate that President Obama dislikes overreaction. And terrorists rely on terror – including our own fears – to exert control and influence far out of proportion to their numbers. But I’m also inclined to listen to Dr. Carson, as a man of science who has put some serious thought into imagining the potential threat.

By now it’s clear that President Obama resists acknowledging the thousand-headed hydra of Islamist extremism, worldwide. You’ve got radical Islamists striking out around the globe – mass shootings from Paris, France to San Bernardino, California; mass rapes in Cologne, Germany; stabbings in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem; the entire nation of Syria ravaged; a Jordanian pilot burned alive; Iraqis fighting back against the stranglehold of ISIS whose bombings, beheadings and kidnappings have killed 18,000 Iraqi civilians over the past two years; and this past week, US sailors who mistakenly wandered into Iranian waters forced to get on their knees and apologize in order to be allowed to leave without incident (despite the fact the US just agreed to unfreeze $150 billion to their leaders, our new diplomatic partners). It does seem wishful thinking to dismiss the problem as that of “fighters on the back of pickup trucks, twisted souls plotting in apartments or garages.”

While Obama acknowledged they “pose an enormous danger to civilians; [and] they have to be stopped” in his State of the Union, he insisted, “They do not threaten our national existence.”

But in this cyber age, it gives pause to imagine the scenarios Dr. Carson sketched out.

When Cavuto asked Cruz, a strict Constitutionalist, if he wanted to address the issue of whether or not he is eligible to run for president as an American born in Canada, The Donald and Cruz started scrapping about that. Bartiromo asked Cruz to explain what he meant by saying Trump embodies “New York values.”

Cruz said, “Everyone understands that the values in New York City are socially liberal or pro-abortion or pro-gay-marriage, focus around money and the media.”

Personally, I doubt Cruz is antisemitic. He’s probably too smart for that (although, prejudice doesn’t always correlate with intellect). He has stood up for Israel against hostile audiences. I also don’t believe many Republicans and conservatives in the US are antisemitic. But the remarks did make me uneasy. I wonder if Cruz has decided to take the advice of some unscrupulous consultant and throw some red meat to the Pat Buchanan wing of the Republican Party with the “money and media” insinuation, playing on old antisemitic tropes in advance of the Iowa caucus. At any rate, it seems to have been a bad move, because Trump parried beautifully with a heartfelt-sounding tribute to the courage of New Yorkers after September 11.

It was pretty rich to hear Christie of all people refer to President Obama as a “petulant child.” Someone should have reminded Christie that his week-long, opportunistic, hug- filled endorsement of Obama following Hurricane Sandy in 2012 may have cost the Republicans the last presidential election. I’m starting to suspect Christie may be the Republicans’ Hillary (he’d say or do pretty much anything to get elected).

Finally, am I the only one who was really uncomfortable watching Trump verbally attack Bush?

At one point during a discussion about tariffs on foreign goods, Trump erupted, “We don’t need a weak person being president of the United States because that’s what we’d get it if were Jeb” and Bush just kind of sputtered, “Come on, man,” as if he was incredulous that Trump was name-calling him on the national stage.

Perhaps I’m overstating it, as Jeb Bush is a successful governor running for president, not a 12-year-old on the schoolyard getting heckled as he comes up to bat. But I can’t help but feel the psychological dynamics of bullying are present and that as Trump undermines Bush’s standing, he is eating away at his confidence. It is awful to witness.

When Trump calls Bush, “weak,” you want to see the latter fight back and say, “You think you’re a tough guy, but if you came to Texas without your bodyguards and tried insulting people, you’d quickly get you’re a$$ kicked,” but you can understand he doesn’t want to descend to Trump’s level. But just as you wish the kid being bullied would just sock the bully in the face, you wish Bush would say something like the aforementioned to The Donald. Or that someone would already.

Though his campaign may be coming apart at the seams, Bush did manage one of the best lines of the night when he quipped that if Hillary Clinton gets elected, “her first 100 days, instead of setting an agenda, she might be going back and forth between the White House and the courthouse.”

At this point, Megyn Kelly is the only public figure I’m aware of who seems to have zero fear of The Donald. She and he will face off again at the next debate.

It is the job of political journalists to vet these candidates and they do no favors to the public – or the candidates – to go soft on them. Bring it on, I say! Can’t wait for January 28.

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