SIMI VALLEY, Calif. — The last time Carly Fiorina was here, the former Hewlett-Packard chief executive sketched out her foreign policy blueprint. One thousand people heard her condemn the slow training of anti-Islamic State forces, the ambitions of China and the wonky “tooth to tail” ratio of military power to military bureaucracy.
It was sober. It was serious. It was basically ignored. Like much of this summer’s political news, Fiorina’s July speech was subsumed by Donald Trump; it inspired only a fraction of the news searches that Rolling Stone attracted last week when it quoted Trump seemingly making fun of her looks, according to Google Trends data.
The rise of Trump and of retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, two first-time candidates who prefer broad strokes to policy debates, has left the Republican establishment looking confused and helpless. Originally expecting a clash of ideas among a diverse, talented field, the establishment’s national security Brahmins paired up with candidates and got to work — only to be blown out of the conversation by Trump.
That has left some Republicans hoping that Wednesday’s debate will break the fever — and change the tenor of the race from flashy to substantive. Hugh Hewitt, the syndicated Orange County radio host who will co-moderate the event, has promised to grill candidates about geopolitics and world leaders. If that happens, the debate will become a crucial test for Trump and Carson — and for the staying power of their campaigns.
“If this isn’t the moment to finally get serious, when the hell will it be?” asked Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), another Republican presidential contender. “Is the next time we get serious about foreign policy going to be when we get attacked? Everybody criticizes Barack Obama’s foreign policy, everybody knows he has no strategy in Iraq and Syria, but we need something specific to replace that. If we don’t hear that from the candidates, this week will have been a waste of time.”
Graham is an unwilling mascot for how foreign policy has fallen out of the primary debate. Just months ago, he was engaged in a near-daily debate with fellow GOP candidate Rand Paul, the libertarian-leaning senator from Kentucky, over issues including Iran and the Islamic State. “I’m running,” Graham said, “because the world is falling apart.”
On Wednesday afternoon, Graham will join former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.), another longtime Washington hawk, at the four-man second-tier debate. Santorum is at least invited to a policy-focused forum later this week in Greenville, S.C., hosted by Heritage Action for America; Graham, who lives near the venue, is not.
That will leave the task of vetting Carson and Trump on Wednesday to nine other candidates and the moderators. Neither front-runner has laid out a specific plan for attacking the Islamic State; Trump consistently has told audiences that he has a secret plan that he cannot share lest the enemy find out. Both candidates have been light on strategies for other crises.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, lamented how little attention has been paid to foreign policy.
“There certainly hasn’t been very serious discussion of it, because of the nature of the campaign,” McCain said. “Just rhetoric.”
McCain added about Trump: “He’s not been asked tough questions. He’s said he wants to deport 11 million people. How do you do that? He hasn’t answered that question. He said in the Middle East he would go, and quote, ‘take their oil.’ I’d like to know how you do that. I think the American people deserve an explanation.”
Not all of them want one — at least not yet. Trump and Carson both bombed interviews with Hewitt — to no appreciable effect. In March, Carson appeared not to realize that the Baltic states were NATO members. Asked about the fumble, he explained that a president would have “access to a lot of experts in a lot of areas” and that he would not be stymied by gotcha questions. “You don’t want to devote all your attention to learning facts on a fact sheet,” he said. His standing has grown dramatically since then.
Trump, under more scrutiny, fared even worse. He’d previously told “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd that his foreign policy advice came from watching Sunday talk shows and talking to national security hawks. Faced with Hewitt’s questions, Trump seemed to confuse Iran’s Quds forces for the decidedly non-Iranian Kurds, and he couldn’t describe the difference between Hezbollah and Hamas.
It was a disaster, compounded by Fiorina’s largely adroit answers to the same questions. Yet like every “disaster” of Trump’s summer, it did not halt his momentum; in poll after poll, he has held his position as front-runner of the Republican field since early July.
Hewitt, meanwhile, returned to his debate prep with some new thinking about how to really draw out the candidate.
“I don’t think those questions, quiz questions about knowledge, tell you anything about understanding,” Hewitt said. “Knowing names is dumb. That’s not necessary. I wish I had phrased my question to Trump as: ‘General Soleimani, who leads the Quds forces, is about to get $100 billion. What will the impact of that be?’ That’s what I wanted to ask, and it went off the rails.”
It’s true that Trump’s and Carson’s actual positions have been largely unexamined — and have remained room-shaking applause lines at his rallies. Trump offers audiences a vision of an America that’s always “winning,” that learned from the Iraq war (which he came out against 16 months after the invasion), that is ready to “take the oil” from conquered Islamic State territory.
“We’re going to have so many victories,” he told more than 10,000 people in Dallas on Monday, “at some point it’s going to be coming out of your ears!”
He offered no more detail Tuesday in Los Angeles when he delivered what was billed as a national security speech. “We’re going to make our military so big and so strong and so great — it’s going to be so powerful that no one is going to want to mess with us,” he said.
Carson has offered a lower-decibel version of the same idea, minus the oil seizures. At a rally last week in Anaheim, Calif., Carson said that some generals had told him that the Islamic State could be defeated easily if the military’s “hands aren’t tied.” In Anaheim, and at a later rally in a Houston suburb, Carson said he would oblige.
“I would use every resource, including financial resources, offensive and defense resources, covert and overt activities,” he said in Texas. “I would use everything possible not to contain them but to destroy them.”
For the people who study foreign policy and try to shape the national conversation, the simple answers from Carson and Trump are frustrating — yet totally understandable. The rise of the Islamic State has stoked panic among some conservative voters, but it has not defined their conversations. In the most recent Gallup poll, conducted in August, only 19 percent of voters listed a foreign policy issue as “the most important problem facing this country today.” Only 3 percent said, specifically, that the biggest problem was the Islamic State.
The GOP’s hawks have tried, with little success, to sober up the base. Former vice president Richard B. Cheney and his daughter Liz reemerged last week with a book, “Exceptional,” and an argument about how the party must rediscover its inner hawk. They sold 14,000 copies, according to Nielsen’s BookScan service.
Yet they were stymied by a problem bedeviling former Florida governor Jeb Bush’s White House bid: lingering ill will toward the administration of his brother, George W. Bush. Both Trump and Carson tell voters they are right to be skeptical of military adventures in the wake of the Iraq war. The debate about what a “serious” foreign policy may look like has been paused, and every other candidate wants to change that.
“We haven’t even begun the substance part of the campaign,” said Paul, who has fallen in most polls but will take part in the main debate. “It’s really been about celebrity and really sophomoric insults. I think the beginning of the decline of Trump is at hand, might have begun with Perry dropping out. The media and the voters may be starting to ask: ‘Oh, my goodness, we are promoting something bad for the country. Do we want someone this unserious in charge of our nuclear arsenal?”
Mike DeBonis in Washington contributed to this report.