In the wake of the Paris attacks, there was a lot of loose talk about how the 2016 campaign was now gonna be all about foreign policy and national security. There was also some pushback from smart political scientists who argued that the campaign impact of the terrorist attacks would likely be transient. (The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts split the difference on this question.)
Well, we’re more than two weeks from the attacks, and as the carnage recedes from memory
long enough for Donald Trump to claim that thousands of Americans cheered the attackers it’s worth stepping back and considering the actual effects. As Kevin Drum points out at Mother Jones, the polling numbers on the GOP side show no discontinuity in the wake of the Paris attacks. This suggests that the immediate impact was negligible. Or, to quote Kevin:
[D]espite the maunderings of various pundits, it looks like the Paris attacks had exactly zero impact on the race. All five of the leading [GOP] candidates were on a trajectory before the attacks, and they continued that trajectory very precisely afterward. There’s not so much as a blip in the polling data….
Whatever you felt about the candidates before, apparently they made you feel exactly the same way afterward, except more.
So that’s that, I guess … except it’s worth stopping for a second and listening to what the leading candidates are actually saying about possible policy responses. Because what’s being said is a little surprising.
Remember, the intuition in the wake of the attacks was that the public would prefer those candidates who could reassure Americans that they would be tough on national security. Which, in the case of the Paris terrorist attacks, would naturally translate into a more hawkish approach toward the Islamic State’s base in Syria. But if you look at what those candidates are actually saying, it sounds very different.
Meanwhile, Sen. Ted Cruz, now running second in Iowa, just gave an interview to Bloomberg’s Sahil Kapur in which he consciously distanced himself from the neoconservative worldview:
The Texan portrayed himself as a third way between the stalwart, non-interventionist views of Senator Rand Paul and pro-interventionist policies in pursuit of spreading democracy and human rights through the Middle East that Rubio espouses. Cruz’s belief is that trying to democratize those societies can be counterproductive and that U.S. military might should be focused narrowly on protecting U.S. interests ….
On Syria, Cruz inveighed against Rubio and Clinton for supporting a no-fly zone and arming “the so-called moderate rebels.” “I think none of that makes any sense. In my view, we have no dog in the fight of the Syrian civil war,” he said, arguing that Rubio and Clinton “are repeating the very same mistakes they made in Libya. They’ve demonstrated they’ve learned nothing.”
“The enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend,” Cruz said. “If the Obama administration and the Washington neo-cons succeed in toppling [Bashar al-] Assad, Syria will be handed over to radical Islamic terrorists. ISIS will rule Syria.”
It seems that on Syria specifically and the Middle East more generally, Cruz sounds a lot more like Rand Paul than Marco Rubio — that is to say, more risk-averse on U.S. intervention.
As for Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton? Well, she just told Charlie Rose the following:
She goes on to note that Assad’s government is not going to be falling anytime soon.
As Cruz’s comments suggest, Clinton is still somewhat more hawkish on Syria than either of the two leading GOP candidates. But still, what’s interesting is that in the wake of the Paris attacks, the leading candidates in both parties have put firm limits on any U.S. military response to the Islamic State.
What’s going on? Part of it, I think, is that some of the candidates think that they can sound hawkish on the cheap by railing VERY LOUDLY about radical Islamists and then sounding
stupid tough on the question of Syrian refugees. This gives them the latitude to avoid making more costly promises on Syria that they’ll feel bound to honor if they get elected.
Still, stepping back, there has been an effect of the Paris terrorist attacks on the 2016 campaign — it’s just not the effect that anyone anticipated.