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Paris and the U.S. Presidential Election

Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.
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The tragedy in Paris is roiling U.S. politics, bolstering the Republican right’s anti-immigration demands in the short run and perhaps ultimately enhancing Hillary Clinton and her credentials as the candidate with experience.

Politicians from President Barack Obama on down expressed outrage at the attacks, for which the Islamic State claimed responsibility. Several leading Republicans immediately politicized the issue. Texas Senator Ted Cruz blamed Obama and a weak “photo-op” foreign policy, and one of the party's presidential front-runners, Donald Trump, said the tragedy reinforces the needed for “tougher” American leadership.

“This will be exceptionally important” in shaping the presidential race, said Peter D. Hart, a prominent Democratic poll-taker, suggesting it was likely to help Clinton, the only top-tier candidate in either party with a national security background.

In a debate of Democratic candidates on Saturday, she opened by stating that the U.S. would be electing a new commander in chief.

The attacks seem certain to heighten the importance of foreign policy in an election where it hasn't been prominent. In a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, only 8 percent of the public cited terrorism as the most important issue.

The terror strikes were seized upon as a reason for cracking down on immigration. “This will help the anti-immigration cause and hurt efforts to bring in Syrian refugees,” predicted Vin Weber, a leading Republican strategist and pro-immigration advocate.

Among Republicans, the immediate speculation was about the consequences of the Paris attacks for Trump. In Iowa on Thursday, the businessman-showman let loose a particularly vicious tirade against some of his nomination rivals.

There was a growing sense within the Republican establishment that the "Trump rant" might be the incident that finally derails his candidacy, even though he hasn't been affected by supposedly lethal political acts in the past. The terrorist assault could reverse any political slippage. Trump has largely set the agenda and dominated the dialogue on immigration; other candidates have followed.

Both prominent Republicans and Democrats suggested that a renewed attention to terrorism could harden his core support, though an overall emphasis on foreign policy wouldn’t play to the billionaire’s strength.

Similarly, it’s hard to see how this focus would assist Trump's closest rival in the polls, the pediatric neurosurgeon Ben Carson, a political novice. Carson’s reaction to Paris was to call for an increase in military and economic assaults against radical Islamists, including by using “things that they don’t know about resources.”

Among the other leading contenders, the boyish-looking 44-year-old Florida Senator Marco Rubio has most emphasized a hard line on national security. Yet pollster Hart predicts voters “won’t want the kid” in the White House in an era of possible foreign policy crises. Cruz, though the same age, projects greater toughness and was more forceful than his rival candidates in his response to the attacks, though he may have overreached.

Weber, one of the Republican wise men, said that with time, voters may look “for someone with more gravitas.” He hopes this will play to the strength of his candidate, Jeb Bush.

The former Florida governor, seen as one of the more mature candidates in either party, has only derivative national security credentials because of his family, particularly his brother, former President George W. Bush. That may prove a mixed blessing for a candidate struggling to regain his footing. 

The reason Hart sees an advantage for former Secretary of State Clinton is that a greater focus on terrorism will cause voters to look even more for a “heavy and strong hand at the tiller.” This might minimize the problems she has among strongly non-interventionist Democratic primary voters because she is more hawkish on foreign policy than the president she served. And it could help her in a general election, though Republicans constantly criticize the “Obama/Clinton” weakness on foreign policy.

In the Democratic debate, Clinton took the hardest line on national security: She insisted that the Islamic State “must be defeated,” not just contained, a break of sorts with Obama who last week talked about containment of the group. She also stressed that she had advised Obama to approve the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Her chief challenge in the debate was criticism of her support for Wall Street, which she suggested had been linked to her efforts to rebuild New York after the Sept. 11 attacks. 

However this evolves, both Republicans and Democrats agree that Nov. 13 is likely to be an important marker in the selection of the 45th American president.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Albert R. Hunt at ahunt1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net