WASHINGTON – The Republican field, on the evidence of its fifth presidential debate, is beginning to sort itself by seriousness.
Donald Trump alternately advocated war crimes (kill the families of terrorists), embraced liberal isolationism (end America’s military role in the Middle East and spend the money on bridges), displayed astounding ignorance (badly bluffing through a question on the nuclear triad) and lapsed into looniness (steal oil from the Middle East and give it to wounded warriors).
Trump may, for all I know, gain 10 points for what supporters may regard as out-of-the-box thinking. It is still disqualifying for the presidency. Americans will realize this, either before or after the destruction of the Republican Party.
If Trump is in constant search of a darting spotlight, Ted Cruz is always looking for the best applause line. As a presidential candidate, his superpower is to sense exactly where the right is at any given moment and get there himself, with a flourish that leads to a standing O.
The problem for Cruz is that the conservative soul has been divided on foreign policy over the last decade, leaving him in an uncomfortable straddle.
In 2013, libertarian ideas seemed ascendant. When Rand Paul engaged in a 13-hour Senate filibuster warning that the out-of-control national security state might use drones to kill Americans in sidewalk cafes, Cruz joined the protest, describing Paul as a “modern ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.'” When Paul filibustered against the NSA metadata collection program earlier this year, Cruz again rose in support, praising Paul’s “passionate defense of liberty” and warning of the government’s ability “to track the location of every American citizen, no matter where we walk.”
Both of these efforts were based on ideologically driven, conspiracy-minded fantasies. The drone and bulk-data programs were constrained by careful procedures and neither had been abused. Now, in the light of the Paris and San Bernardino attacks, Cruz is attempting to reconstruct his demolished defense and foreign policy credentials.
The result is part isolationist, part realist and part pipe dream. The Islamic State, he says, can be defeated by “overwhelming air power” – though few, if any, military authorities would agree with him. The main obstacle to victory, he says, is “political correctness” – which would come as a surprise to allies facing weapons and fanaticism. Somehow the fog of war would clear if an American president said the words “Islamic radicalism” as a kind of incantation. And Hosni Mubarak, Moammar Gadhafi and Bashar al-Assad were really our best bets – rather than the despotic authors of their own downfalls.
Having shifted his views on immigration and on a number of foreign policy issues, Cruz has a particular difficulty. He is a conviction candidate with the challenges of a chameleon.
The contrast with his likely rival, Marco Rubio, is stark. Rubio’s foreign policy ideas were clearly the most serious and developed on the debate stage. He has mastered a key presidential campaign skill: the three-part answer. So first, in his view, we will need Sunni boots on the ground against the Islamic State, not air power alone; second, we will need broader integration of American special operations forces; and third, we need to win the propaganda war by denying the Islamic state territory and victories. The three-part answer works on pretty much any topic, but it requires a candidate who can master his briefing book and has a genuine familiarity with issues (sorry, Ben Carson).
During a solid, reassuring performance, Rubio schooled Trump on nuclear strategy, offered a serious critique of President Obama’s Syrian policy, explained the complications of building a Sunni alliance while doing outreach to Iran, defended the collection of metadata and showed a knowledge of budget issues without lapsing into legislative-speak.
But when it came to the largest moral controversy of the Republican race – Trump’s unenforceable and offensive proposal to bar non-citizen Muslims from America – Rubio punted, choosing to “understand” the motivation before rejecting the measure.
While this may have demonstrated good political skills, it also highlighted Rubio’s main vulnerability: a reputation for politically motivated malleability). The position of lonely truth-teller on tolerance is probably not the path to the Republican nomination.
But Jeb Bush deserves credit for playing this role, and thereby showing his own character. “If we want to destroy radical Islamic terrorists,” he explained, “we can’t disassociate ourselves from peace-loving Muslims.” The point is irrefutable. Whatever else happens in this campaign, we will know this about Bush: He was offended by offensive things.
Michael Gerson’s column is distributed The Washington Post Writers Group.