The big winners of the last Republican presidential debate of the year: Donald Trump, ISIS and anti-anxiety medication.
What Mr. Trump said on stage (incoherent, as usual) didn’t matter. His victory was in how much most of the other candidates tried to sound like him. (See a transcript of the Dec. 15 debate here.) Almost all of them followed his lead in stoking hysteria about ISIS and in condemning “political correctness” as a threat to national security. In one of his attempts to fill time, Mr. Trump said, “We have to be much tougher,” and debate host CNN quickly added the banner headline “TRUMP: WE HAVE TO BE TOUGHER” above its streaming video. The headline stayed there for at least 20 minutes, mocking every other candidate as they flitted on and off screen and tried to be a skosh less unhinged than the frontrunner.
No one signed on to Mr. Trump’s plan to bar Muslims from entering the United States, but no one expressed discomfort with the shift in political discourse toward bed-wetting isolationism. Ted Cruz gave the idea credibility by saying, “everyone understands why Donald has suggested what he has,” and when CNN moderator Wolf Blitzer cited a poll showing that most Republicans agree with Mr. Trump’s proposal, Marco Rubio capitulated with “Well, I understand why they feel that way, because this president hasn’t kept us safe.”
Mr. Cruz set the tone in his opening statement, insisting, “We need a president who understands the first obligation of the commander-in-chief is to keep America safe.” (Mr. Cruz in particular made me think of a song from the horror musical Sweeney Todd: “Nothing’s going to harm you/Not while I’m around.”) Writing at Vox the next day, political scientist Seth Masket disagreed: “The Founding Fathers provided an explicit oath for presidents to take, and it says nothing about safety. Instead, it declares that the first priority of the president is to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution.” Mr. Masket also tweeted that the unrealistic promises of safety were themselves a form of political correctness.
Rand Paul was the chief dissenter of the Safety First doctrine, saying, “I think we defeat terrorism by showing them that we do not fear them,” and “in defending America, we cannot lose what America stands for.” For what it’s worth, one poll identified Mr. Paul as one of the biggest losers in the debate (behind only Jeb Bush), and it’s clear that his squeamishness about ripping up the Constitution isn’t endearing him to Republican primary voters any more than when made the faux pas of mentioning racial disparities in our criminal-justice system in a previous debate.
Besides the Constitution, a big loser in the CNN debate was interventionism, or the neoconservative foreign policy championed by Mr. Bush and Mr. Rubio. (Mr. Bush at the debate, in a concise statement of guns-not-butter: “America is under the gun to lead the free world to protect our civilized way of life…. Regarding economic security, we need to take power and money away from Washington, D.C.”) The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the instability caused by U.S.-encouraged overthrow of regimes in Egypt and Libya, have left little enthusiasm for a “spread democracy” foreign policy among Republican voters, or for Mr. Bush and Mr. Rubio’s stand that the U.S. should help to push out Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
Instead, GOP voters seem drawn to a kind of cruelty-maximizing isolationism, in which our jittery nerves at home (see the closing of the Los Angeles school system over a prank e-mail, which Chris Christie implied in the debate was something he could prevent as president) justify Mr. Trump’s suggestion to kill the families of terrorists and Mr. Cruz’s pledge to “carpet bomb” cities in Syria.
The terrorist attack in San Bernardino has so far not caused Republicans to turn to a candidate with international expertise; on the contrary, it seems to have dampened interest in anything that happens beyond our borders. In the CNN debate, “San Bernardino” was mentioned 19 times. Despite being the scene of a far deadlier and more organized attack, “Paris” was mentioned only four times—once in a disparaging reference to the global climate change summit held there. So much for solidarité. One got the impression that the candidates could live with terrorist attacks in Europe, and that the continent is too far gone to save—kind of like a Walking Dead character that had been dragged off by a flesh-eating mob.
Carly Fiorina even got in two mentions of the Tsarnaev brothers, who bombed the Boston Marathon in 2013. That terrorist act, like the one in San Bernardino, appears to be the result of “self-radicalization,” in contrast to the Paris attacks that were coordinated by ISIS. The idea that a president can reduce the risk of further attacks on American soil to zero is ridiculous, but that’s what most of the candidates are selling. Even Mr. Trump’s great wall across the Mexican border, a cold shoulder to refugees, and an unprecedented police-state surveillance of American citizens won’t make us immune to the violence that every other nation must deal with—though such actions would relieve us of the burden of serving as a role model for the rest of the world.
As of December 17, the Real Clear Politics average of national polls has Donald Trump at exactly 33 percent. The trio of candidates who are vying for the evangelical vote (Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, and Mike Huckabee) are at 30 percent. The “establishment” candidates (Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and John Kasich) total 22 percent.