The Evolving Presidential Campaign and the Last GOP Presidential Debate of 2015
The last GOP presidential debate of 2015 was held this week in Las Vegas and it proved to be more substance laden than many in the past – larded with several attacks by some candidates against their opponents. Fortunately, CNN produced a night more focused on policy than candidate-on-candidate attacks. In fact, it was a debate that Bush later called a, “Commander-in-Chief debate.”
The evening produced less focus on Trump controversies than previous debate-night affairs. Senators Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas dominated much of the contest, battling as if the race were already a two-way contest.
For people interested in how a Republican president would carry out foreign policy the debate was an important one. The debate frequently was between proponents of a more isolationist America-first foreign policy and those hawkish advocates of regime change and nation building. This to a large degree reflects the divide in the GOP between neo-conservatives and those who are tired of 14 years of war under Bush and Obama.
One of those reflecting a more isolationist approach to foreign policy is Senator Cruz, who has taken over second place and is making a play to overcome Trump. Cruz linked ordinary Americans’ frustrations with political correctness to intelligence failures under Obama and former Secretary of State Clinton’s stewardship. “Political correctness is killing people,” Cruz said, as he mentioned the Obama administration’s reluctance to monitor social media accounts or pursue possible radical ties because of its hypersensitivity to profiling.
Cruz proclaimed: “…., I believe in an America-first foreign policy, that far too often President Obama and Hillary Clinton — and, unfortunately, more than a few Republicans — have gotten distracted from the central focus of keeping this country safe.”
“I introduced legislation that I believe is more narrowly targeted at the actual threat,” Cruz said, highlighting three pieces of legislation he filed to back up Republican governors opposed to forced settlement of Syrian refugees in their states.
Cruz has emerged as a national party leader on the issue, putting legislative proposals forward as the media and Establishment hammer Trump for his rhetoric on banning all Muslim immigrants.
Much of the fire during the debate was between Cruz and Rubio. In a back-and-forth with Rubio, Cruz attacked his fellow senator for Rubio’s super PAC ads attacking Cruz for voting to end the National Security Agency’s mass bulk data collection.
Cruz went on to draw a tangible distinction from the foreign policy supported by both Rubio and Clinton, which prioritizes regime change and nation building over killing terrorists and putting the interests of Americans first.
Rubio repeatedly steered the debate conversation back to the issue of NSA bulk surveillance, an issue the Rubio campaign has targeted as a weak-point for Cruz.
But Cruz was well-prepared to deflect Rubio’s criticism on the issue, and Senator Rand Paul sided a bit with Cruz as he took Rubio on directly for suggesting the NSA program meaningfully increased the security of Americans while saying Rubio was weak on the security of American borders.
Rubio had to explain his perceived weakness on amnesty by suggesting Cruz supported past measures offered to increase legal immigrant visas. Rubio earned big applause lines for tough, hawkish talk on ISIS.
Rubio, along with Cruz, looked like a contender with the political skill to remain in the top-tier of contention.
Trump, who had created a lot of controversy last week by saying Muslims shouldn’t be allowed in the US was much quieter on the subject this debate. Trump had fewer back-and-forth exchanges with other contenders than in past debates, but nevertheless was attacked by candidates looking to bring down the front-runner.
Trump was questioned about his comments and clarified his view. “We’re not talking about isolation, we’re talking about security,” Trump said to his opening question from moderator Wolf Blitzer on his Muslim immigrant ban suggestion, defining his comments in the vein of an Americans-first security policy.
“They shouldn’t be using the word mastermind,” Trump later said, slamming the media for its coverage of terrorists. “These are thugs, these are terrible people.”
Trump also appeared to be unaware of the American nuclear triad, which is at the heart of American nuclear defense strategy – something that Rubio was more than glad to instruct him on.
It was expected that a foreign policy debate would allow Jeb Bush to outshine his opponents. For weeks, the Bush campaign raised expectations for him and his handle on terrorism and foreign policy.
However, in the debate Bush was completely overwhelmed by Rubio, and he was largely a non-factor in heated cross-stage exchanges on NSA surveillance and the merits of Syrian regime change.
“We need to get the lawyers off the back of the war fighters,” Bush said – in what appeared to be one of many planned, hawkish lines. However, none were able to compare to those of Rubio, who showed himself to be the serious neo-conservative in the race.
Bush also took some of the best shots at Trump, which won praise from the anti-Trump segment of the GOP. Bush delivered the most memorable line of the debate’s early stages when he said Trump was “a chaos candidate. And he’d be a chaos president.” In a later exchange, he told the businessman, “You’re not going to be able to insult your way to the presidency,” a phrase met with applause from the audience.
However, Trump managed to retort in a way that made Bush look the loser in the exchange. “Jeb doesn’t really believe I’m unhinged,” Trump responded. “He said that very simply because he has failed in this campaign. It’s been a total disaster. Nobody cares.”
Although Bush was sharper and more focused in this debate, the biggest question is whether a good debate can really help a candidate who is stuck at just 4 percent national support.
While governors are seen as weak in foreign policy, NJ governor Christie tried to make it a positive as he faced three senators. “This is what it’s like to be on the floor of the United States Senate,” Christie chided Cruz, Rubio, and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul after a tense exchange among the three over NSA surveillance. “This is the difference between doing something … and being one of 100 debating it,” he said.
Lumping all three senators together, and working to define them all as products of Washington, is a smart strategy for Christie, who needs to defeat Rubio, win the New Hampshire primary, and become the GOP establishment favorite.
“Yes, we would shoot down the planes of Russian pilots if in fact they were stupid enough to think that this president was the same feckless weakling that the president we have in the Oval Office is right now,” Christie said in one of the strongest hawkish lines of the night. He also made it clear he supported a no-fly zone in Syria.
Look for Christie to continue to attempt to outgun Rubio on rebuilding the military and intervention abroad to win over the Establishment-linked neoconservatives.
The rest of the candidates had few real moments to articulate their foreign policy stands with notable exception of Rand Paul who accused Christie of being the candidate to start WWIII. Senator Paul, who is the most non-interventionist noted that a no-fly zone in Syria and the presence of Russian aircraft could lead to war.
Ohio governor Kasich early on took the initiative by slamming Obama for going to France for a climate summit but refusing to tackle the growing threat of terrorism. However, after a strong open, the Ohio governor largely faded in a contest dominated by Cruz, Rubio, Paul, and Christie.
In the last debate, Carson showed himself to be weak on foreign policy and despite his best attempts, he continued to look over his head. Though there were moments when Carson appeared to speak with knowledge on matters of foreign policy, the subject matter of the debate was ill-suited to a Carson comeback. The pediatric neurosurgeon gave a very disjointed answer at one point, comparing the mercy of operating on a child to bombing innocent civilians. It came off as nearly pure rambling.
“We need to think about the needs of the American people” before solving problems in the Middle East, Carson said, joining in with the isolationist candidates but not coming off as better than Cruz.
Fiorina gave good answers, but not good enough to stop her slide in the polls. Fiorina’s strongest lines of the night came when tying her experience as a technology CEO to a call for private industry to get involved in stopping terrorism. She said security agencies missed the Boston bombers and San Bernardino shooter because the “government is woefully behind the technology curve.”
In the end, the debate probably didn’t make a large number of voters change their mind. As Americans turn off politics as they enter the Christmas season, Trump remains in first place – his mouth probably being his biggest opponent. However, Cruz is starting to nip at his heels and waiting for voters to tire of Trump.
Meanwhile, Rubio seems stuck in third place – a position that has GOP leaders scared and looking at invoking their own “nuclear option” – a brokered convention. Their hope is that a brokered convention would allow them to negate the delegate advantage that Trump might bring into the convention.
The Mechanics of a Brokered Convention
The talk of a brokered convention came about as a result of a recent dinner meeting between Senator McConnell, RNC chairman Reince Priebus, and several other GOP officials and operatives. It featured a discussion of whether Donald Trump’s candidacy could force the party into picking the presidential nominee at the Republican convention because there was no clear cut winner. The report, issued from the Washington Post, caused consternation among GOP grassroots activists who worried that establishment Republicans might try to control the nomination process.
There hasn’t been a contested GOP convention since 1976, when President Gerald Ford defeated Ronald Reagan’s primary challenge on the first ballot, but the depth of this year’s Republican field had some veteran operatives planning for such a fight.
Before the modern era of American politics, the brokered convention – one where no candidate came to the convention with a majority of delegates – was more common. However, they are very rare today and the hope of the GOP establishment to force a brokered convention in order to defeat Trump and Cruz is much harder than many think.
In the past, delegates to national conventions were picked by the political leadership of the state – usually for their loyalty. So, for instance, a Republican governor would pick the delegates for their loyalty to him and would often go to the convention as uncommitted to a national candidate. Often, they would pledge themselves to a “favorite son,” like the governor or a senator. The delegation leader would then be able to negotiate with the candidates in return for a political favor like appointment to the cabinet, or even Vice President.
Now, with presidential primaries and state and even local presidential conventions or caucuses, that sort of control is nearly impossible. Today, the grassroots are better able to control the choice of delegates than the state or national GOP leadership. That means that candidates like Trump or Cruz have a natural advantage in a brokered convention.
Usually the delegates to the national convention must support the presidential primary winner for the first ballot, unless they are released by that candidate.
If Trump gets the plurality of delegates, while Cruz get a lesser number, Cruz could release his delegates and urge them to support Trump – possibly in return for being Trump’s vice presidential choice. If Trump and Cruz have the majority of delegates that would make for a first round win for Trump.
However, the released delegates aren’t required to vote the way their candidate asks. This means that the personal wishes of the delegate are most important if released for the first round of voting or in later ballots. This is where “slates” in the local or state meetings are critical. They may guarantee a win for a candidate, even if they don’t have enough votes to win on the first ballot.
For instance, let’s assume that Trump wins the primary in a state, while Cruz comes in second and Rubio, third. At the state meeting, where the national delegates are chosen, the Trump campaign would file a slate of recommended delegates that they know would remain loyal to Trump in a brokered convention. Meanwhile, Cruz and Rubio backers would put out slates of delegates that would vote for Trump on the first ballot, but would support their candidate in later ballots. This means, for instance, that a state that voted for Trump on the first ballot, might switch to Cruz in a second ballot if the delegates to the state convention vote for the Cruz slate.
Complicating this process is that the delegates to the state convention vote twice – once for delegates that represent their congressional district and once for the state as a whole.
This means that a strong Cruz team could make sure their slate wins at the statewide vote, but, when the congressional groups break out to vote, those groups might vote for delegates favoring other candidates, depending on who each congressional group prefers.
For example, assuming a state that is electing 50 delegates, who are committed to voting for Trump in the first ballot, may have 18 delegates coming from the six congressional districts (3 delegates per district) and 32 elected statewide.
If the Cruz team wins the statewide vote for its slate, but Trump, Rubio and Cruz each win 2 congressional ballots, the second ballot at the national convention could see a delegation that voted unanimously for Trump in the first round vote, give 38 votes for Cruz, 6 votes for Rubio, and 6 votes for Trump in the second ballot.
That’s what makes winning a brokered convention so hard. If the GOP national leadership wanted to win a brokered convention, they would have to have a majority at all the local caucuses, the state convention, and the separate congressional ballots.
Since the majority of these delegates at the local and state levels have made it clear that they prefer Trump or Cruz, it would be nearly impossible for the Republican National Committee to move the grassroots Republicans toward an establishment candidate like Rubio or Bush.
In the end, the campaign will revolve around winning state primaries – the surest way to win the nomination. However, have no doubt that the Trump, Rubio, Cruz, Paul, and Bush campaigns will be circulating their “slates” at the statewide events just in the unlikely chance that a brokered convention occurs.
Don’t Let Hawks Exploit Terrorism Fears
By A. Trevor Thrall
December 16, 2015
In the wake of the Paris and San Bernardino attacks, polls show surging public support for a more aggressive response to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Yet while the current concern about terrorism is understandable, it would be a tragic mistake to let the hawks hijack the public’s emotional response in the service of misguided policies. Calls for carpet bombing and immigration bans may be satisfying in the short run, but giving in to fleeting fears will only make us sorry in the long run. A recent CNN/ORC poll found that 68% now believe that the Obama administration has not been aggressive enough, and that for the first time a majority of Americans supports the use of ground troops to fight ISIS. And as Tuesday’s debate demonstrated, Republican candidates looking to score easy political points are happy to stoke the public’s fears reflected in such views, and to propose hasty, ill-considered, and un-American responses. Indeed, upset with President Barack Obama’s halfhearted campaign against ISIS to date, and fueled by public frustration over recent attacks, the hawks’ calls for more aggressive efforts have grown more intense.
Afghanistan and Failed State Wars: An Update
By Anthony H. Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
December 10, 2015
The Afghan conflict has become steadily more complex with time, and also steadily more difficult to assess. The process of Transition during 2014 withdrew outside combat forces, and many aid, consular, and NGOs had to withdraw in the process. The United States and its allies have lost access to many sources in the field, have cut back sharply on official reporting, and have often shifted from realistic assessments to public relations exercises that exaggerate success and either disguise key challenges or fail to mention them. Official Afghan reporting often seems to be generated by computer models that make detailed estimates based on only tenuous data collection.
Is Iran recalibrating in Syria?
By J. Matthew McInnis
American Enterprise Institute
December 16, 2015
Speculation in the press is widespread that Iran is pulling back its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) officers from the front lines in Syria after experiencing increased losses during the past few months on the battlefield. IRGC Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani may have been injured in fighting around Aleppo. So has Iran’s campaign to support Syrian President Bashar al Assad finally hit a wall? Are they in retreat now?
Riyadh, Rumeilan, and Damascus: All You Need to Know About Syria’s Opposition Conferences
By Aron Lund
December 9, 2015
It’s conference time in the Syrian opposition. All of a sudden, three rival meetings have kicked off, all claiming to represent the opposition to President Bashar al-Assad. One is being held in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, while the other two take place inside Syria—the first in Rumeilan, a town in the Kurdish-controlled northeast, and the second in the Syrian capital of Damascus, under the watchful eyes of Assad’s security apparatus. This rush of political meetings is a direct consequence of the agreement struck in Vienna on November 14, when a group of states calling themselves the International Syria Support Group issued a joint communiqué laying out their vision of how to resolve the conflict in Syria. The group included all the major players in Syria, such as the United States, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar. Their communiqué called for negotiations between Assad and the opposition as soon as possible, with a target date of January 1
Turkey, Russia, and NATO Enter the Danger Zone
By Michael A. Reynolds
Foreign Policy Research Institute
On November 24, a Turkish F-16 fighter jet downed a Russian SU-24M ground bomber near the Turkish-Syrian border after it violated Turkish airspace over the southern tip of Turkey’s most southern province of Hatay. The clash resulted in the death of one of the Russian aircraft’s two pilots. According to Turkish reports, Turkish air patrols had warned a pair of Russian jets flying in the area multiple times over the course of five minutes not to violate Turkish airspace. When, however, the SU-24M entered Turkish airspace, an F-16 brought it down with an air-to-air missile. By all accounts, the Russian violation of Turkish airspace lasted for just seventeen seconds, and there was never any suspicion that the Russian air force either now or in the future had any intent of striking Turkey. Was this just an unfortunate miscalculation of the sort that multiple observers have warned would be all too likely to occur as the number of warring parties in Syria has increased, the product of Russian pilot error or recklessness, or a nervous, trigger-happy Turkish Air Force? Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan suggested nearly as much when he said the Turkish military would have acted differently had it known that the target was a Russian (as opposed to a Syrian) aircraft, a point repeated by other Turkish officials.
Riding the Egyptian-Israeli Roller Coaster 2011-2015
By Marc J. Sievers
Policy Notes 27
After Hosni Mubarak’s fall in February 2011, relations between Egypt and Israel experienced a series of shocks. The first incident was a Sinai-based terrorist attack triggering an Israeli response that inadvertently killed three Egyptian border police. A second involved a violent demonstration outside the Israeli embassy. And a third — likely the most unsettling — was Mohamed Morsi’s election as president, a development seen to possibly threaten the longstanding Egypt-Israel peace treaty. Ties are hardly perfect today under President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, but security cooperation has strikingly improved. And some signs, such as TV shows that portray Egypt’s vanished Jewish community nostalgically, suggest that overwhelming Egyptian popular hostility toward Israel could one day recede. In this Policy Note, Marc Sievers — former U.S. deputy chief of mission and charge d’affaires in Cairo — offers his personal insights on the resilience of the Egypt-Israel relationship and the manifold reasons it must be nurtured.
The Islamic State in Southern Syria
By Aaron Y. Zelin and Oula A. Alrifai
December 15, 2015
Over the past two and a half years, the Islamic State has had its ups and downs in the southern front of the Syrian war. Currently, it is in a good position to make further advances in the southern Damascus and al-Lajat regions. There are still questions about its position in al-Qaryatayn due to the ongoing fighting with the regime, and in the al-Qalamoun region due to the large deployment by Lebanese Hezbollah and issues it has had there with Jaysh al-Fatah, an umbrella force dominated by Jabhat al-Nusra and HASI. The Islamic State now appears to have three main priorities in southern Syria: cut the M5 highway between Damascus and Homs to separate the regime from the majority Alawite coastal regions; occupy al-Lajat region in order to cut rebels off from their supply routes into northern Syria; and encircle the capital.