At least they might from a perspective of governing. When it comes to campaigning, however, the candidates who gathered in Las Vegas Tuesday night for the fifth Republican debate, appear to have chosen a different message — one from David Cronenberg’s 1986 remake of “The Fly”: “Be afraid, be very afraid.”
“Regarding national security,” said former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush just minutes into the debate billed as a foreign policy forum, “we need to restore the defense cuts of Barack Obama to rebuild our military, to destroy ISIS before it destroys us.”
“America is at war,” said Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, just moment’s later. “Our enemy is not violent extremism. It is not some unnamed malevolent force. It is radical Islamic terrorists.”
“If I am elected president,” Cruz continued, “we will hunt down and kill the terrorists. We will utterly destroy ISIS.” Cruz went on to warn about future “terrorist attacks” and against “admitting jihadists as refugees.”
Next up, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson arguably took things a step further. After asking for a moment of silence for the victims of the Dec. 2 attack in San Bernardino, Calif., he said, “You know, our country since its inception has been at war, every 15 or 20 years. But the war that we are fighting now against radical Islamist jihadists is one that we must win.”
“Our very existence is dependent upon that,” warned Carson.
Real estate mogul and reality TV star Donald Trump still leads in national polls, and so got the last word during the opening segment of the debate. “A month ago things changed,” Trump observed in his now-famous free-verse vernacular. “Radical Islamic terrorism came into effect even more so than it has been in the past.”
The opening remarks set the tone, but it was a mood the host-questioners — Wolf Blitzer and Dana Bash of CNN, and conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt — seemed well prepared to maintain.
In the newest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 40 percent of U.S. adults say national security and terrorism should be the top priority for the federal government — up 19 points from when the question was last asked in April.
But that number only tells half the story. Among Republican primary voters, 58 percent list terrorism and security as their primary concern. Only 26 percent of Democratic voters share that opinion.
The anxiety is, given recent events, understandable. Respondents to the same survey listed the attacks in Paris and the mass shootings in San Bernardino and Charleston as the top three news stories of 2015.
But for some political analysts, the way the GOP candidates and the CNN crew chose to explain the current atmosphere painted a skewed picture of what is meant by foreign policy.
“Note the subtle, utterly familiar framing: foreign policy = threats,” tweeted Vox blogger Dave Roberts. “Not opportunities, not partners. Just threats.”