On December 16, 2015 at the Venetian in Las Vegas, the nine highest-polling Republican candidates debated foreign policy, with a pointed focus on the threat of ISIS, and the role the United States should play in the Middle East combating what has become a controversial term, “radical Islamic terror.” The moderators of the debate, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer and Dana Bash, and conservative talk radio host Hugh Hewitt, also pressed the candidates on recent suggestions, first by Donald Trump and then others, that Muslim American citizens should face more scrutiny as part of the War on Terror. If you missed the debate, don’t worry — we’ve posted some highlights below.
Donald Trump on Killing Terrorists’ Families
Yep, you heard that right. In response to a recorded question that asked about the United States killing the innocent relatives of ISIS members, as he has claimed he would do, Donald Trump then expanded on his policy proposal, saying that executing the families of people who carry out terrorist attacks will make attackers think twice before committing violence. Jeb Bush answered with incredulity.
Donald Trump on Shutting Down The Internet
Claiming that individuals and businesses in America’s high-tech community had the ability to “shut down” certain parts of the Internet as part of an effort to disrupt terrorist attack, Donald Trump said they would be justified in doing so, and that he would support such efforts as president. “I sure as hell don’t want to let people that want to kill us and kill our nation use our Internet. Yes sir, I am,” Trump said, in response to a question along those lines from Wolf Blitzer.
Rand Paul on Censorship and Terrorism
This election season, and indeed most of mainstream Republican consensus, has not been kind to Rand Paul. The pseudo-libertarian candidate has preached Internet freedom and an isolationist foreign policy seemingly into the wind. But Tuesday’s debate, most of which functioned as a collective reaction to Donald Trump and others’ comments about the threat of Islamic extremism, offered Paul the perfect chance to make his case. Underlining what many defense experts have said — that targeting Muslims plays into ISIS’ narrative of the West as Islamaphobic — Paul asserted that the U.S. ought not play into the hands of groups hoping to provoke a reaction through terrorism. “I think that if we ban certain religions, if we censor the Internet,” Paul said, “the terrorists will have won.”
Jeb Bush to Donald Trump: You Can’t Insult Your Way to the Presidency
In reaction to one of the perhaps dozens of times that Donald Trump has belittled him on stage, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush responded simply and directly: “You’re not going to be able to insult your way to the presidency.” So yes, perhaps he and Trump were light on details to the actual question asked by Wolf Blitzer, but then again, this is a CNN debate: who answers questions? Jeb did, however, assert himself as a competent leader with enough backbone to stand up to the GOP’s biggest bully, a good start, even this close to Iowa. We will see if the momentum ever changes in the once-presumptive nominee’s favor.
Rubio and Cruz on the NDAA
Marco Rubio took a shot at Ted Cruz, attacking him for voting against the National Defense Authorization Act, a gigantic fund-all for military and government spending that is passed annually. Cruz said he objected to provisions in the bill that allowed for the indefinite detention of American citizens — a frequent issue with civil libertarians and advocates for limits on government power — re-asserted his commitment to fighting ISIS on the ground instead of engaging in regime change.
Trump Pledges to Stay with the Republican Party
Months ago, an early question in a Republican debate seemed to catch Donald Trump off guard: if he wasn’t selected as the party’s nominee, would he support the nominee, or would he run as an independent? At the time, Trump waffled for a few days, and eventually signed a legally insignificant “pledge” to stay with the party. Hugh Hewitt pushed him on this question again in the CNN debate. This time, Trump’s answer was, though still unbinding, much clearer. “I really am” to commit, he said.
Rubio and Paul Spar on Intelligence and Immigration
The recent attacks in San Bernardino brought into focus the complex relationship between intelligence-gathering, border security, and terrorism. One of the attackers in San Bernardino was an American citizen, the other, his wife here on a visa. In a lively exchange between Marco Rubio and Rand Paul, Rubio argues that greater intelligence capabilities would have caught the attackers in the run up to the attack itself. Paul, pointing to Rubio’s record on immigration reform — which is to the left of most other Republican candidates — argued that border security, including a re-evaluation of the spousal visa program, would have made a bigger impact.
Chris Christie on the Bomb Threat in Los Angeles
Christie, who never wastes a debate response without mentioning his experience as a federal prosecutor in the weeks and months following 9/11, focused on a bomb threat made to Los Angeles area schools which prompted the entire public school system — which serves more than 650,000 students — to close for a day. Christie wondered aloud what impact the school closing would have on students’ sense of safety, projecting their fear on the overall uncertainty many Americans feel about the threat of terrorism.
Carly Fiorina on Cybersecurity
Former CEO of Hewlett-Packard Carly Fiorina used her experience in the tech world to illustrate the disadvantages at which the U.S. intelligence community might find itself in detecting and tracking threats of terrorism. The USA PATRIOT Act was signed in 2001, she noted, and since then, technological advances have radically changed the way we communicate, and the way terrorists plot attacks. She said the private sector, especially in places like Silicon Valley, needed to help the government confront extremism, and that she had the right connections to make it happen.