The fifth debate of the Republican presidential primary, held in Las Vegas Tuesday night, was a wild ride through the world of foreign policy and national security. It featured two leading candidates promising that, if elected, they would commit war crimes in the fight against ISIS. It exposed gaping holes in some candidates’ knowledge of basic national security issues, and at several points. it dissolved into name-calling and efforts by the nine participants to talk over one another as well as the moderators.
In the end, the only major candidate on the stage to walk away from this nine-car pile-up unscathed was Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.
Coming into the debate, expectations were highest for Rubio. The first-term senator has served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, rising to a subcommittee chairmanship, and he has made his relative expertise in foreign affairs a main selling point in his campaign.
On Tuesday night, he did not disappoint. By a clear margin, Rubio came across as the most knowledgeable and polished candidate on foreign policy and national security, the two issues that were the focus of the debate.
By contrast, Donald Trump, who currently leads the GOP field in national polls by a commanding margin, was more than once unable to deliver substantive answers on questions of national security.
A telling moment came late in the more than two-hour debate, when conservative radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt, one of the moderators in the CNN-broadcast event, pressed Trump on the status of the nation’s nuclear weapons arsenal.
Noting that the three elements of the so-called nuclear triad – silo-based missiles, nuclear-capable bombers, and nuclear-capable submarines – are all either aging or, in the case of the B-52 bomber, carbon dated to the Eisenhower administration, Hewitt asked Trump what his priority would be in terms of upgrades.
Trump plainly had no idea what Hewitt was talking about, and launched into a rambling answer that ranged from criticism of the Obama administration’s attention to global warming to “hand-to-hand combat” in parts of the Middle East.
Hewitt tried again, asking him which of the legs of the triad he would focus on first.
Trump’s halting reply: “I think, to me, nuclear, the power, the devastation, is very important to me.”
Hewitt then turned to Rubio, who began by ostensibly addressing the television audience though he could as easily have been needling Trump.
“First, let’s explain to people at home what the triad is, since maybe a lot of people haven’t heard that terminology before,” he began, before delivering a brief description of the three components of the nation’s nuclear deterrent, and his own diagnosis of the problems facing each.
The debate last night was the first held since two ISIS-inspired terror attacks, one in Paris on November 13 and one in San Bernardino, CA on December 2, refocused the U.S. public on national security as the primary issue in the campaign.
For the most part, the candidates battled to outdo each other in their promises to defeat ISIS and in their attacks on the Obama administration’s failure to do so – with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie more than once accusing the president and the likely Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton of “betrayal” of the country.
One question focused on promises by a number of the candidates to use overwhelming military force against ISIS. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, for example, has repeatedly promised to “carpet bomb” the terror group, which keeps many of its units in areas with very large civilian populations. Trump has vowed to kill the families of known ISIS members.
Both of these tactics are, pretty plainly, war crimes under the Geneva Conventions, as Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul pointed out somewhat incredulously. Yet both Trump and Cruz doubled down on their promises.
In one of the creepier moments of the debate, Hewitt asked Ben Carson, a former pediatric neurosurgeon, if he would have the fortitude to order attacks that would kill innocents in the war on ISIS.
“Could you order air strikes that would kill innocent children by not the scores but by the hundreds and the thousands? Could you wage war as a commander-in-chief?”
“Well, interestingly enough, you should see the eyes of some of those children when I say to them we’re going to have to open your head up and take out this tumor,” Carson began, explaining that while they are initially unhappy, they come to love him after the procedure is over.
“By the same token you have to be able to look at the big picture and understand that it’s actually merciful if you go ahead and finish the job rather than death by a thousand cuts,” he said.
“So you are okay with the deaths of thousands of innocent children and civilians?” Hewitt asked, to a rising chorus of boos from the audience.
“You got it, you got it,” said Carson, though at the time it was unclear if he was addressing Hewitt or the crowd.
Pressed again, Carson said that as president, he would do what it takes to keep America safe.
The fifth debate marked an awakening of sorts for former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who went on the attack against Donald Trump, blasting the billionaire as a “chaos candidate” who would be a “chaos president.”
Bush, once considered a favorite for the nomination, is now struggling in low single digits in national polling, but he went after Trump hard on multiple issues, calling his promise to kill the families of terrorists “crazy” and repeatedly saying that Trump is not a serious candidate.
A major storyline coming into the debate was the simmering tension between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. The Texas senator has been gaining on Trump in some polls, and has pulled ahead of him in Iowa in several, including the Des Moines Register/Bloomberg poll.
However, the two didn’t clash much at all, even going out of their way at times to be kind to one another.
Cruz and Rubio, however, traded multiple bards, with the Texan on multiple occasions suggesting that Rubio was lying about his policy positions, and repeatedly attacking him on the issue of immigration, where the Floridian has appeared to shift his position after coming under fire from the Republican base for favoring a path to citizenship for some undocumented immigrants.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina stood out most for efforts to rein in the debate when candidates began talking over one another and shouting, but with both currently averaging only 2.3 percent in the polls, neither appeared to have the sort of break-out night that could propel them into the top tier.