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Paris attacks provide ready material for Republican candidates

Analysis: In contrast to Democrats, GOP hopefuls invoke deaths in France to bolster tough talk on security, immigration

With their debate on Saturday night, Democrats got the first high-profile opportunity to work Friday’s deadly attacks in Paris into their presidential pitches. But by Sunday morning, with its traditional cavalcade of news shows, Republican candidates got their chance to talk terror.

"We should have no empathy for our enemies. We should destroy them,” said former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush on Fox News.

"I want to fight them in their backyard, so we don't fight them in our backyard," South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham said on the same program, echoing former President George W. Bush’s “fight them there so we don’t have to fight them here” rationale for the invasion of Iraq.

Ben Carson, the retired neurosurgeon near the top of many GOP opinion polls, also — in so many words — called for increased U.S. military involvement in the region, during an interview with Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace. Carson wanted to start with a “no fly zone” over Syria, insisting that a strong U.S. presence would get “Arab states and even the non-Arab states” to “recognize that the jihad movement is global." When pressed, Carson declined to say which states he was referencing.

But it was Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, seen by many as ascendant in the presidential race, who perhaps went furthest in punching up his campaign rhetoric. When asked by ABC’s George Stephanopoulos how he felt about Hillary Clinton saying “radical jihadists” but not wanting to use the term “radical Islam,” Rubio said, “I don’t understand it. That would be like saying we weren’t at war with Nazis, because we were afraid to offend some Germans who may have been members of the Nazi Party but weren’t violent themselves.”

“We are at war with radical Islam,” Rubio continued, “with an interpretation of Islam by a significant number of people around the world, who they believe now justifies them in killing those who don’t agree with their ideology. This is a clash of civilizations.”

“Clash of civilizations” — though the term’s origins date back many decades — was likely a reference to an American Enterprise Institute lecture given by Samuel P. Huntington in 1992. That paper, which predicted cultural conflicts would replace ideological and economic ones, was a kind of viral hit in the immediate aftermath of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The theory has been much debated and much criticized since.

But Rubio’s simultaneously bellicose and esoteric call might get pushed out of the media spotlight by multiple GOP calls to halt all immigration from Syria and Iraq.

“To bring them over here is … a suspension of intellect,” Carson said on FoxRand Paul called for more scrutiny of “refugees, visitors and students” to determine who will “do us harm.” Rubio said it would be impossible to do the background checks and the United States should take none of them. Bush suggested the country only take in Christians because, he says, they are the ones ISIL is executing.

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum drew an absolute line. “Under no circumstances” should the country let in more refugees, he said in a statement. "By taking in persecuted Christians, Jews, and moderate Muslims,” the statement reads, “we are complicit in helping ISIS accomplish their goal of establishing an Islamic caliphate. Without Christians, Jews, or moderate Muslims in the region, radical Islam will be allowed to run rampant."

And, not to be outdone, Donald Trump told MSNBC Monday that the U.S. should consider closing mosques with leadership the candidate called radical.

“I would hate to do it, but it's something that you're going to have to strongly consider,” he said. Trump called for increased surveillance in and around mosques, and a reevaluation of some civil liberties.

“We have to be much tougher,” Trump said. “We are going to have to give up certain privileges that we've always had.”

The GOP reaction stands in notable contrast to the way Friday’s tragic events have influenced the Democratic candidates’ talking points. Though all condemned the Paris attacks and the people reportedly behind them, all attempted to differentiate a fight against terrorists from any change in immigration policy. No one seemed to advocate sending regular U.S. ground troops to Syria. And none, publicly, at least, have called for the kind of surveillance ramp-up suggested by the likes of Paul and Trump.

Clinton did stumble rhetorically in Saturday’s debate, condemning “radical jihadists,” but she seemed intent on staying clear of the “clash of civilizations” frame, then and in media appearances the next day.

Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley distinguished himself from his two opponents, Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, on the refugee issue Saturday night, going further during the debate to assert that the U.S. should still commit to taking in 65,000 people by the end of 2016 — or approximately one-half the resettlement goal of 130,000 set out by the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees.

And in what seemed an almost radical step for a candidate inside the sound bite-driven, reductivist logic of a political campaign, Sanders went so far as to connect terrorism to what he says is the foremost national security threat, climate change.

“Climate change is directly related to the growth of terrorism,” Sanders said during Saturday’s debate. “And if we do not get our act together and listen to what the scientists say, you're going to see countries all over the world … struggling over limited amounts of water, limited amounts of land to grow their crops and you're going to see all kinds of international conflict.”

Sanders went further on CBS’s Face the Nation Sunday, explaining how Syria’s severe, multi-year drought — likely exacerbated by global warning — drove migration to the cities, which led to more unemployment, poverty, instability and unrest. That provided a fertile environment for the seeds of what would become the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL.

Those comments drew instant rebuke from some GOP candidates, much of the conservative press, and even some campaign-watchers in the traditional media, but the science supports Sanders. Whether voters will, however, is usually — fairly or not — the final arbiter of ideas inside the bubble of election-cycle coverage.

Can the short attention span often associated with campaign season stay focused enough on these issues to change policy now or have an effect next fall? That is, as they say, open to debate.

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