Rand Paul, Chris Christie ... and a 2016 campaign about national security?

In the record-setting GOP debate Thursday, the most interesting and impassioned moments were about global security. Is it a sign that America’s political center of gravity is shifting overseas, and away from pocketbook issues?

Andrew Harnik/AP
Republican presidential candidate Sen. Rand Paul, (R) of Kentucky, speaks during the first Republican presidential debate at the Quicken Loans Arena Thursday in Cleveland.

Republican presidential candidates spent much of the record-setting primary debate Thursday talking about foreign policy and national security – a decidedly different topic from voters’ self-described top priority of the economy and jobs.

True, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush also talked up his idea that 4 percent annual economic growth is possible under new leadership and policies. And more than a few of the 17 candidates put in a plug for slashing regulations, building the Keystone pipeline, reforming entitlements, or doing their own overhaul of the tax code.

But moments of higher passion and emotional resonance in the debate, which 24 million people tuned in to watch, seemed to come on issues of America's role in the world and its vulnerability to threats from overseas. In two separate debates, candidates ranged over topics from the Iran nuclear deal, illegal immigration, the threat of the Islamic State, and restored ties with Cuba.

"The most interesting moments ... came when the Fox News anchors who moderated the debate — Bret Baier, Megyn Kelly, and Chris Wallace — turned to issues of foreign policy," write Dan De Luce, Lara Jakes, and Yochi Dreazen in Foreign Policy. "Each of the candidates took turns deriding Obama as a weak and feckless leader who had failed to stand up to adversaries ranging from the Islamic State to Russian President Vladimir Putin."

Is this a sign that America’s political center of gravity is shifting toward global security, and away from pocketbook issues?

The answer is probably of the “yes, but” variety. Some strong currents in news and politics suggest that foreign affairs will figure more prominently in the 2016 election than in 2012. In that sense, the center of gravity is shifting, but that doesn’t mean it’s moving fully overseas. Other forces should keep domestic issues, and especially pocketbook ones, very central to the election campaign over the 15 months between now and Election Day.

The most heated moment was a shouting match over protecting Americans' privacy rights versus protecting America from terrorists, with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie seeking to slap down Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul for his efforts to rein in National Security Agency data collection.

The tussle between Governor Christie and Senator Paul was not only the most tangible verbal dust-up between two candidates during the two debates, it also prompted the largest volume of public engagement on social media, according to Twitter and Facebook.
 After Christie defended the collection of bulk phone records for national security, and talked about attending funerals of friends who died in the World Trade Center attacks in 2001, Paul fired back with an appeal for warrants. "I want to collect more records from terrorists, but less records from innocent Americans. The Fourth Amendment was what we fought the Revolution over!"
 Christie called Paul's view "a completely ridiculous answer." The argument went on from there before Ms. Kelly intervened.

That exchange, in the debate among the 10 highest-polling contenders, came after an earlier “undercard” debate among seven other candidates, in which South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham pressed the case for US ground troops in Iraq to battle adherents of the Islamic State.

In both debates, candidates roundly and animatedly rejected President Obama’s proposed deal with Iran to ease economic sanctions in exchange for measures designed to contain that country's nuclear program.Separately, Mr. Obama’s diplomatic ventures with Iran and Cuba run against the grain of many conservatives, and the question of how to secure America’s borders and reform immigration remains unresolved. 

Politically, these issues may be a natural point of attack because the expected Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, served as Obama’s secretary of State. Questions about her private e-mail account while at the State Department, and about foreign donations to her family’s nonprofit foundation add extra potential fodder, at least from the perspective of likely GOP voters.

About half of Americans disapprove of Obama’s performance on foreign policy, while close to 4 in 10 approve, according to CBS/New York Times polling over the past year. 

When Texas Sen. Ted Cruz told a New Hampshire audience in March that “The world’s on fire,” he didn’t just cause a toddler in the room to perk up and ask for some explanation. He set the stage for a theme that he and other candidates are now hitting consistently.

But don’t expect 2016 to be all about geopolitics and shoring up America’s military might. 

Some other factors are likely to temper such a trend. First is the point this article started with: The economy and jobs still ranks as Americans’ top priority, as they consistently have over the past eight years.

Although unemployment has fallen since 2012 (to 5.3 percent of the labor force, according to government data released Friday), many Americans have stretched budgets and ongoing anxiety about the job market. Gallup polling finds the overall view of the economy remains generally negative, some six years after the recession's official end.

Neither side is going to ignore that issue. If Mrs. Clinton becomes the Democratic nominee, her platform will include heavy doses of proposed economic reforms – including measures aimed at addressing widening income inequality – that Republicans will need to counter.

Second, foreign policy and national security issues may be flaring particularly strongly at this early stage of the Republican race, as candidates struggle for viability. Governors who have never led on these issues want to show that they’re conversant. And ringing an alarm bell or two can grab the audience’s attention in a way that a tax-reform prescription may not.

Finally, when the general election rolls into view, a nominee will need credible plans, not just a critique of Obama and Clinton.

Kori Schake, a fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution, underscored this point in a June commentary: “How, for example, do Republicans aim to sustain the sanctions regime against Iran when Europeans are essential to that undertaking and all favor the nuclear deal? How can they destroy the Islamic State without addressing the failures of governance that make its gains possible?”

Still, even if the foreign focus may be tempered a bit as the campaign season progresses, it’s not likely to fade entirely. The debates Thursday were a platform for several candidates to show their passion on these issues.

“One of the great challenges that we have: $150 billion is fixing to go to a country that killed our Marines in Lebanon,” former Texas Gov. Rick Perry said Thursday in his debate appearance. “Whoever the next president of the United States is going to be, and I'll promise you, if it's me, the first thing that I will do is tear up that agreement with Iran.”

Former high-tech CEO Carly Fiorina said she’d make two phone calls on her first day in the Oval Office, one to reassure Israel of US support and the other “to the supreme leader of Iran. He might not take my phone call, but he would get the message.”

Senator Graham warned about Islamic State: “If we don't stop them over there, they are coming here just as sure as I stand here in front of you.”

Higher-tier contenders on Thursday put less emphasis on national security. But they didn’t ignore the issue. Real estate magnate Donald Trump, leading in the polls, urged a strengthening of America’s military.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker lamented, “We are leading from behind under the Obama-Clinton doctrine.”

And Mr. Bush, although opting for an economic theme in his closing remarks, echoed the calls to “stop the Iran agreement” and said, “we need to take out ISIS with every tool at our disposal.”

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