Debating the Debate: The Fear Factor

In a moment shadowed by terrorism, Republican candidates tried to come across like wartime presidents.

It was scary.

Photographer: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The fifth debate of Republican presidential candidates in Las Vegas Tuesday night focused mostly on national security matters, especially terrorism. The oratory was hot, with much talk of threats, danger and military strategy. Bloomberg View's Ramesh Ponnuru and Paula Dwyer watched and compared notes.

Dwyer: It appears that, first and foremost, the candidates wanted to show their comfort in the role of wartime president, a role that Barack Obama has never been comfortable in. So will all this be about using the language of aggression -- and instilling fear in voters? 

Ponnuru: The outlier, I'd say, on tone rather than substance, is Marco Rubio, whose opening statement emphasized the country's greatness and the need to protect it rather than the threats to it. Donald Trump famously talks about making America great again, but his emphasis always seems to be on how it's not great right now. Rubio's rhetorical strategy seems to me to be the right one for the general election, but whether it's right for the primaries is less clear.

Dwyer: We're seeing a big difference between Ted Cruz and Rubio, who represent two strains of conservatism. Rubio is more hawkish, Cruz more isolationist. But doesn't that put Cruz in a tough position, considering that the election now seems to depend on who can be most hawkish? Will Cruz come to rue the day when he voted against the defense authorization bill and for the measure barring collection of cellphone metadata? 

Ponnuru: I am not at all sure that Cruz is going to pay a price for sounding more dovish. He is not an isolationist -- just listen to his enthusiasm in talking about bombing -- and I think a lot of Republicans don't just want the most hawkish possible president. They want a president who is willing but not eager to use force. But the defense-budget vote, I agree, is a vulnerability.

Dwyer: It wasn't long ago that Cruz said Syria isn't our fight. I think he quickly reversed course after the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino. Even then, he suggests it was a mistake to bring down Middle East despots like Muammar Qaddafi in Libya and now Syria's Bashar al-Assad.

Ponnuru: Right, and Cruz has at least strongly implied that Saddam Hussein should have been left in power in Iraq. The thing is, though, I think a lot of Republicans these days find these sentiments reasonable. 

Dwyer: Would a lot of Republicans agree that George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq was a mistake? 

Ponnuru: Jeb Bush was forced to say that, wasn't he? But it is a touchy subject, to be sure, which is why Cruz has strongly implied it instead of saying it. That hastening the overthrow of Qaddafi was a mistake, on the other hand, is a pretty widespread view in the GOP.

Dwyer: Yes, Bush said "knowing what I know now." Do Republicans regret overthrowing Qaddafi or failing to fill the vacuum once he was toppled?

Ponnuru: Rubio would say the latter, but I think a lot of other Republicans would say the former.

Dwyer: Would Cruz preserve dictatorships over democracy in the Middle East? Cruz cuts to the chase: Obama and Hillary Clinton topple Qaddafi and thus opened the door to radical terrorists. If the same happens to Syria's Assad, it will create more ISIS opportunities. Rubio points out that the war on Qaddafi was started by Libyans. "I would not shed a tear," says Rubio, to see the dictators go. 

Ponnuru: Again, I think Cruz is tapping into a real sentiment among Republican voters (and this Bloomberg View columnist). That sentiment favors democracy and even democracy promotion as a long-term goal, but does not think that it always serves our immediate interests. But I don't think we got involved in Libya because we were starry-eyed about its democratic potential. And Rubio made a good counterargument: We did not really have a choice to preserve dictators in all these situations, and we should have acted to increase our influence over what came after their ousters.

Dwyer: Jeb Bush takes a classic middle ground when he says you need a plan to get in and a plan to get out, which means there must be a stable situation after regime change. The challenge is: How do you do that? His brother failed on that score. Obama failed, too, in Libya. Does anyone have the answer? 

Ponnuru: The appeal of having "a plan to get out" is undeniable, but isn't it a quixotic goal when we're intervening in unstable areas? We can, on the other hand, have a plan for what we do after the achievement of an immediate military objective -- and that's what we signally failed to have in Iraq, largely because we did not expect the state to disintegrate as quickly as it did.

Dwyer: Now the debate switches to another issue dividing Republicans, immigration. It's a good and a bad subject for Rubio. It allows him to bring up his uplifting family story. But it also forces him to acknowledge his flip-flop on the path to citizenship. Rubio blames the government -- how can we trust a subpar bureaucracy to protect the borders and vet immigrants before we allow them citizenship? 

Ponnuru: The Cruz-Rubio exchange was pretty heated. I thought Cruz came out the winner. There are nuances in the debate, of course, but he can point to an easily understood bottom line: Rubio was with Obama and Schumer, and I was against them. One question: How will Cruz's repeated jabs at Rubio as a liar play? Most Republicans like Rubio -- but they may be susceptible to the argument that they can't trust a smooth talker.

Dwyer: I think Rubio gives as good as he gets. When Cruz accuses him of dissembling about immigration or of siding with Democrats, Rubio hits back by pointing out Cruz's support for a large increase in H-1B visas for professionals. Rubio is right: A 500 percent increase in those visas is the same as a path to legalization. So Cruz wants to seal the border, but only against some immigrants, not all. 

Ponnuru: Cruz, you'll note, refused multiple opportunities to rule out a path to legal status. He said he did not "intend" to offer legalization and referred viewers to his website, where he has a plan that does not tell us what he'd do with illegal immigrants who are already here (except for those who commit non-immigration-related crimes, whom he would deport). 

Dwyer: Cruz swings back to "terror anxiety" by raising the Los Angeles school closings on Tuesday. He's going for a two-fer: Avoid the question of whether Trump has the right temperament to control the U.S. nuclear arsenal and make voters feel insecure at home. 

Ponnuru: And so we circle back to fear as our guiding theme. I don't think there's anything wrong with making fear-based arguments in politics: We have the capacity for fear for a reason, after all; it helps us to be mindful of dangers. But I doubt it's a tone that will make for political success in the general election. The theme of a competitive primary in a polarized age, though, is: The general public can wait until later.

Dwyer: The fear-mongering is a recognition that terror threats on U.S. soil are now atop the list of worries voters cite to pollsters. But how does opposing Syrian refugees and immigrants help on that front? Nor does that make for a coherent foreign policy. Might that be because the candidates don't really have good ideas for defeating ISIS, other than to destroy them?

Ponnuru: I wouldn't say that they have no good, or at least plausible, ideas. But their plausible ideas either resemble what President Obama is doing and Hillary Clinton is calling for, or are politically risky because they involve thousands of American ground troops. That's the bind they're in. You are, of course, right about the public mood. But even if people have reasonable fears, it might make more sense to stress how they can be overcome than to try to deepen them. 

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

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    Ramesh Ponnuru at
    Paula Dwyer at

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