In Presidential Campaign, It’s Now Terrorism, Not Taxes
Bernie Sanders dispensed with the threat from the Islamic State in two sentences at the start of the Democratic debate before abruptly pivoting to the dangers of a “rigged economy.” Ben Carson struggled to answer a simple question on Sunday about how he would form a coalition to fight the militant group. And Marco Rubio, after pushing out a new video about the “clash of civilizations,” revamped his plans for an important Monday appearance before a group of executives on the assumption that terrorism, not tax rates, would be their most pressing concern.
The assault on Paris has thrust national security to the heart of the presidential race, forcing candidates to scramble and possibly prompting voters to reconsider their flirtations with unconventional candidates and to take a more sober measure of who is prepared to serve as commander in chief.
Until now, the campaign, when it did not descend into insult comedy on Twitter or become mired in biographical disputes, was focused on a subtler sort of threat to the country’s way of life: economic and racial inequality, for Democrats, and a less-defined fury about a loss of America’s identity, for Republicans. But the bloodshed in the heart of Paris posed concrete questions about how the contenders would respond to an urgent and seemingly metastasizing threat.
“I think this incident in Paris will break down some of the false sense of separation from the experience the rest of the world is having with terrorism,” said Senator Chris Coons, Democrat of Delaware. He predicted that the campaign would “begin to focus as much on national security and foreign affairs as domestic matters and economic security.”
Or, as Tom Ridge, a former secretary of Homeland Security, put it: “The barbarians are no longer at the gate. They’re inside.”
Less than three months before the Iowa caucuses, the attack may prompt Democrats who have had misgivings about Hillary Rodham Clinton to come to terms with her given the potential for a general election overshadowed by terrorism. Republicans, whose primary is far more volatile, must now ask whether candidates like Mr. Carson, who claimed at one point that China was becoming involved in Syria, and Donald J. Trump, who suggested the battle against the Islamic State could be left to Russia, are wise choices in a world where Western capitals can be made into killing fields.
“Voters are very dubious about our ability to remake the world, but they’re very serious about us defending ourselves,” said Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker. “They have a very low tolerance for being frightened.”
Much is not known about the attack’s impact on the race, given short attention spans in politics and the news media and the fact that it did not occur on American soil — though it could affect the discussion of issues like the balance between intelligence-gathering and civil liberties or the closing of the prison at Guantánamo Bay.
What is almost certain is that the demands on the candidates will grow more exacting. As previous presidential campaigns jarred by outside events have demonstrated, how a candidate responds can be as important to a campaign as the event itself.
There have already been telling responses that could resound as the threat of terrorism becomes more central to the campaign. Mr. Sanders’s cursory treatment of the attack and the larger challenge of terrorism at the start of the debate on Saturday seemed to fall short, particularly after Mrs. Clinton followed him by speaking at length about the assault and confronting the threat of terror.
And while Mr. Carson, the retired neurosurgeon, has struggled with policy before, his inability to answer a straightforward question three times on “Fox News Sunday” about whom he would first call to put together a military alliance to confront the Islamic State appeared more consequential than it might have before Paris.
Mrs. Clinton was already tightening her grip on the Democratic race before the attacks. But for Republicans, the bloodshed seemed more likely to shift the direction of the campaign. What is unclear is in which direction.
As the shock of the Friday attacks wore off, many of the hard-liners in the Republican field were moving to focus on blocking Syrian refugees from coming to America. “To bring them here under these circumstances is a suspension of intellect,” Mr. Carson declared Sunday.
The day before, at a rally in Beaumont, Tex., Mr. Trump was just as blunt, claiming without any evidence that President Obama wanted to take in 250,000 Syrian refugees. “You’d have to be insane,” he said. And Mike Huckabee called for denying entry to travelers from countries with a “strong presence” of the Islamic State or Al Qaeda.
Other Republicans expressed cautious optimism over the weekend that the Paris attack would snap voters out of a dalliance with contenders who display little familiarity with the military or the intelligence community, let alone with the intricacies of the geopolitical landscape on which the Islamic State is being pursued.
“I think that when you look at the dimensions of this tragedy, most Republican voters will not be satisfied with ‘We’ll bomb the S out of them,’ ” said Senator John McCain of Arizona, referring to Mr. Trump’s more pungent vow last week.
Mr. Ridge said: “Bombast doesn’t cut it. Inexperience doesn’t cut it. Those who have a record of governance and demonstrated leadership capabilities — their stock is going to rise.”
Candidates who fit that profile have wasted little time since the attacks articulating their vision for confronting terrorism and jockeying to see who can demonstrate the most resolve.
Mr. Rubio, the Florida senator, anticipated that a question-and-answer session with business leaders in Washington on Monday would focus on how to eradicate terrorism. Jeb Bush was recasting an address about rebuilding the military, to be delivered Wednesday at the Citadel in South Carolina, to expand on his argument for America leading the campaign against the Islamic State. And aides to Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, a former federal prosecutor, and Gov. John R. Kasich of Ohio, who had a long career in Congress, said their stump speeches, already replete with references to their national security experience, would focus even more heavily on the subject.
“It does give an advantage to serious candidates,” Mr. Gingrich said. “Because this is an opportunity for them to emphasize their experience and give the kinds of speeches and explanations of this threat that will prompt people to say, ‘Hey, they know what they’re talking about.’ ”
There are risks, though. After the capture of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Howard Dean, then the Democratic front-runner, sought to portray himself as a more serious candidate by delivering an expansive foreign policy speech. But he inserted a line claiming that Hussein’s capture had “not made America safer,” which only reinforced doubts about Mr. Dean.
Yet the question looming over the Republican race is whether such traditional rules of politics still apply. Further, the scale of the assault, its direct link to the Islamic State and the fact that one of the attackers appeared to have been a Syrian refugee who came to Europe through Greece is also pushing the Republican candidates to speak more loudly about keeping Middle Eastern migrants out of the United States.
Should the reaction to Paris become conflated with matters of migration, it could empower those candidates willing to raise the rhetorical stakes and appeal to voters who are as concerned about immigration as they are terrorism.
“If in fact it becomes more clear that a critical aspect was a refugee problem, and the issue blends, that could play into somebody like Trump’s hands,” said Paul Maslin, a Democratic pollster. “Because then it gets to a larger narrative that the West has to shut down its borders — and then you’re playing with fire.”