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For Republican debate, candidates play up fear itself

Analysis: In Las Vegas, GOP paints picture of foreign policy that is all about enemies and threats

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt mounted the East Portico of the United States Capitol in March 1933 for his first inaugural address, the country had already endured several years of crisis. In his speech, the famously jocular Roosevelt took a more somber tone he felt better matched the national mood.

“[F]irst of all,” said FDR, getting right to his point, “let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

When Roosevelt spoke of “nameless terror” back then, he was not, of course, referencing some shadowy, militarized foreign threat. Instead, he was pointing to the domestic economy, mired in the depths of the Great Depression. But today’s presidential hopefuls, faced with an electorate that has quickly pivoted to national security worries, might do well to heed the 32nd president’s warning.

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.”

Despite the almost anomalous reference from Bush to “Europe and our allies,” Tuesday’s debate seemed designed to ignore FDR’s 82-year-old warning, and paint a picture of a United States isolated and under siege. There were no questions about climate change, considered by many analysts — including many in the Pentagon and the U.S. intelligence community — to be the biggest national security challenge facing the country. Nor were there any comments about the historic global emissions deal just announced in Paris.

There were no questions about trade — a notable omission considering that the Obama administration’s massive Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal is awaiting a vote in Congress, and has already been an issue in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination.

There were no questions about international finance in a year that has seen the Greek economy in crisis, and other economies in Europe and South America on the brink. And nothing was asked about the U.S. relationship with Canada — America’s largest energy partner and a country whose government has just moved to the left.

There was plenty of talk, however, about threats and enemies — from ISIL to Iran to Syrian refugees — and all the big, bold and bellicose things the GOP hopefuls wished to do in response. It was as if the candidates were not only determined to ignore FDR’s admonition, but abrogate Teddy Roosevelt’s advice (“Speak softly, and carry a big stick”) as well.

Striking, too, was the contrasting rhetoric sounded by Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in a speech earlier Tuesday at the University of Minnesota.

"We cannot give in to fear," Clinton said. "We can't let it stop us from doing what is right and necessary to make us safe, and doing it in way that is consistent with our values. We cannot let fear push us into reckless actions that end up making us less safe.”

But, come Tuesday night, for Trump, Cruz, Bush and the others who hope to challenge Clinton come next fall, the emphasis on security was more stark.

“There's a real danger when people get distracted by peripheral issues,” said Cruz toward the end of the debate. “We need to focus on defeating jihadism. ISIS and Iran have declared war on America, and we need a commander in chief who will do everything necessary to keep our children safe.”

FDR, in that first inaugural address, said that the economic crisis must be tackled the same way the country would face the “emergency of a war.” But Roosevelt, who was still over seven years away from U.S. involvement in an actual war, was talking about urgency and organization. It was a call to move forward with “vigor” and “understanding.”

For the GOP candidates, the war, as they see it, is already at hand. But for a response, their first offering, it seems, is to leverage the fear.

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