The Republican presidential candidates debating on CNN Tuesday fit right in with the trailer for Michael Bay’s Benghazi techno-thriller that all too briefly interrupted their squabbles: They were stoked for big, explosive government to take over and blow voters’ fears away.
Following the San Bernardino attacks, the candidates were happy to leverage fears of terror plots to promote their White House aspirations—and CNN was all too eager to play along. But the natural tension between the ostensible party of small government and the apparatus of a massive national security state underlined the challenge of building a broad coalition in the fractured Republican electorate.
The real action played out between two young senators, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, vying to unite the Republican establishment with its conservative base. Cruz, having taken the lead in the key state of Iowawith the support of evangelical voters, is now the natural leader in the race, though facially-flexible businessman Donald Trump has yet to relinquish his lead in the national polls.
Cruz and Rubio have already tangled on the issue of national surveillance after Cruz voted for an intelligence bill, the USA Freedom Act, that imposed some restrictions on the National Security Agency’s bulk data collection.
In the debate, Rubio accused Cruz of tying the government’s hands. Cruz argued that his support for the legislation actually empowered spies. He also said the government should expand its online monitoring of social media, alleging that the Obama administration failed to stop terror attacks because of “political correctness.”
Senator Rand Paul, the night’s designated libertarian conscience, made the case against bulk surveillance and various Trump policies that appear unconstitutional on their face, but his was a rare voice of dissent against a tide of conservatives arguing that the US government should expand its surveillance capabilities at home and its war-making efforts abroad.
Those arguments—along with a lengthy, nonsensical exchange aboutTrump’s ability to close down portions of the internet—will hinder the party’s already strained efforts to connect with Silicon Valley.
The biggest throwback to the politics of fear came from New Jersey governor Chris Christie, whose rhetoric recalled Rudy Giuliani’s “a noun, a verb and 9/11” campaign for president in 2008. Christie never failed to remind viewers that he was a US Attorney in New Jersey after 9/11—an experience which somehow endowed him with unique knowledge about the US capacity to enforce a no-fly zone in the skies of Syria.
But, despite criticisms of Operation Inherent Resolve, the on-going bombing campaign against ISIL in Syria and Iraq, few candidates offered specific distinctions between their policies and those of Hillary Clinton or even the Obama administration. Two exceptions were Ohio governor John Kasich, who suggested a Desert Storm-style deployment of US troops, and Cruz, who was particularly enamored of the idea of carpet bombing entire cities—a tactic largely discarded by the US military after Vietnam.
It’s not a debate that appears likely to move the needle in the nominating race. The contest still seems divided between Trump’s surprising staying power versus someone like Cruz, Rubio or even, god help us, Jeb Bush, who got under Der Donald’s skin with the feistiest effort of his so-far dismal campaign.
But viewers of the spectacle in Las Vegas did see an effective preview of next year’s Republican general election campaign: The only thing we have to fear is…everything.