The second round of debates between the US Republican presidential candidates was held last week in California, in the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. This event attracted global attention, including in Russia, since it was primarily devoted to foreign policy.
The debate was expected to result in a significant corrective to the balance of power among the contenders, reining in the ambitions of the current Republican front-runner – Donald Trump, whose grasp of international issues is less than impressive – and allowing the establishment favorite, Jeb Bush, to retake his leading position. But that didn’t happen.
Trump did not even attempt to demonstrate any sudden talent as a sage on global-affairs issues, disarmingly admitting that this is not an area of his particular expertise – but of course this is a shortcoming that is shared by the majority of American voters. He promised them that he would have a much better handle on foreign policy by the time he entered the White House. And they seem to have believed him. The television audience for the debates (over 20 million viewers) was unusually large for the US.
The main quality Americans have sensed in Trump is a commitment to engaging in constructive dialog with all the world’s politicians, without prejudice of any kind, as well as a categorical renunciation of interventionist adventures abroad. Trump promises to restore America’s former greatness, without fighting anyone. For example, he reiterated that he would be able to negotiate with the Russian president: “I would talk to him. I would get along with him. I believe – and I may be wrong, in which case I’d probably have to take a different path – but I would get along with a lot of the world leaders that this country is not getting along with ... We get along with nobody. I will get along, I think, with Putin, and I will get along with others, and we will have a much more stable, stable world.” At times Trump’s pragmatism is striking in its simplicity and cynicism. In particular, he has offered his own strategy for combating the Islamic State and President Bashar al-Assad: “Let them fight each other and pick up the remnants.” That’s also in the American spirit.
Trump’s statements during the substantive parts of the discussion were concise and laconic, but his rivals more than made up for that. With the possible exception of Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, they seem to have conspired to demonstrate their hard line on “foreign enemies” and to launch attacks on Trump. He was asked one-fourth of all the questions, they argued with him and made accusations against him, essentially allowing him to fly solo during all the debates and to come off as a sort of aggrieved peacemaker, although it was he who had previously managed some off-the-cuff jabs at his competitors’ appearance, spouses, and the “ulterior motives” behind their behavior. The three-hour debate itself actually began with a discussion between the other candidates about whether Donald Trump could be trusted with the Gold Codes.
Bobby Jindal, a clear outsider, was the first to lay into Trump, questioning the billionaire’s conservative politics and urging members of the Republican Party to stop treating Donald Trump like a Republican. George Pataki claimed that Trump was unfit to be president. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida also insisted that Trump’s incompetence in foreign policy made him an inappropriate candidate for head of state.
Trump’s opponents somehow believe that the more militaristically you act, the more competent you seem. For example, in regard to the Iran deal that Republicans consider to be one of the greatest sins committed by Obama (and the Democrats in general), Ted Cruz stated that “if you vote for Hillary [Clinton], you are voting for the Ayatollah Khomeini to possess a nuclear weapon.” Only Bush refused to support the idea of ripping up the agreement with Iran, promising to balance it with increased support for Israel as a counterweight to the Islamic Republic. Even the “dovish” Rand Paul, who urged careful deliberation on this issue, admitted that he would vote against the Iran deal.
Most of the participants in the Republican debate had particularly vitriolic remarks to make about Russia. Journalist Stephen Collinson, in his article published on the CNN website, said that Vladimir Putin represented “the perfect villain” for many candidates who will be vying for the White House in 2016. That writer points out that during the recent debates on the CNN network, the Republican presidential candidates seemed eager to drop the Russian president’s name in order to advertise their negative stance toward him, making themselves look strong and Barack Obama look weak.
The article notes that Putin’s name has been mentioned a total of 18 times during the debates, reminding Mr Collinson of previous eras, when Soviet bashing was a staple of all US presidential campaigns. The CNN journalist complains that this anti-Russia rhetoric during the US election campaign could not only further strain the already difficult relations between Moscow and Washington, but also “risks handing Putin a propaganda coup,” because it “risks exacerbating anti-U.S. prejudice in Russia that [Putin] has stoked.”
Even the only woman in the debate, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard Carly Fiorina, apparently competing in absentia with Hillary Clinton for the title of foreign-policy expert, stated that she would simply refuse to negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin. “What I would do, immediately, is begin rebuilding the Sixth Fleet, I would begin rebuilding the missile-defense program in Poland, I would conduct regular, aggressive military exercises in the Baltic States. I’d probably send a few thousand more troops into Germany. Vladimir Putin would get the message.” This was the facile prescription for solving the “Russian problem” offered by that businesswoman.
Other than Trump, only Rand Paul, who lags far behind in the race, said anything about holding a dialog with Russia: “We continued to talk with the Russians throughout the Cold War, which is much more significant than where we are now... We do need to be engaged with Russia. It doesn’t mean we give them a free pass, or China a free pass, but, to be engaged, to continue to talk.” Unfortunately this might be the only point of convergence between the two candidates (Trump and Paul), who together could form a promising tandem.
After the second round of debates, the opinions of Republican voters did change somewhat. According to the polls, support for Trump increased from 33% to 36%. Allegiance to the black neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who is in second place, fell from 17% to 12%. Given the fact that because, as an African American, Carson is already very unlikely to be nominated by his party’s congress as the presidential candidate, Trump’s leadership currently seems absolute. Carly Fiorina is running third, with 10%. None of these three, who together command 58% of the vote, are career politicians, which indicates an ongoing crisis in the Republican party machine. The old-guard favorite, Jeb Bush, has dropped to sixth place with 6%. He is clearly showing no signs of the fighter instinct needed in order to battle Trump for his right to become Bush the Third.
In this environment, Trump’s chances of being nominated by his party’s congress, despite the Republican elite’s distaste for him, are increasing significantly. He is predicted to have a shot at winning the first and second caucuses, in Iowa and then in New Hampshire. This would also give him a major advantage when Republicans in other states go to the polls to express their will. Elizabeth Drew, a veteran of American journalism, writes about Trump: “Those who wrote off Donald Trump as a ‘buffoon’ failed to see that he has shrewdly read the Republican zeitgeist, and that he knows precisely where to stick the knife into competitors.”
But at the same time, analysts believe that one of the most serious obstacles to Trump’s name on the Republican ticket is the Hispanic community’s skeptical view of him, which is provoked by the billionaire’s frequent, scathing remarks about Mexican immigrants. After Obama’s reelection in 2012, Republican party leaders commissioned a study, which showed that in order to take the White House during the next election their candidate must win more Hispanic votes than ever before.
If the party still chooses Trump as its candidate, he will almost certainly have to select a running mate with Hispanic roots from among his current opponents. That is most likely to be the senator from Florida, Marco Rubio or the senator from Texas, Ted Cruz, both of whom are of Cuban descent. That is something that the White House would also need in order to bring Cuba into its orbit after the two countries establish diplomatic relations. An alliance with the moderate Ted Cruz would seem more natural, since the extremely anti-Russia convictions of Marco Rubio would conflict with Trump’s position. However, one can also expect the pragmatic Trump to alter the nature of his statements about Hispanics. For example, he already told CNN, “I love the Muslims. I think they’re great people.”
The staff of the senator from Kentucky, Rand Paul, believes that he was the only candidate to present himself as a mature statesman during the debates, while his rivals merely showed the world how tough they’d be. Everyone, even Trump, attacks him, possibly seeing him as an opponent. Polls, however, show no increase whatsoever in Paul’s numbers. He is one of the outsiders. American society is held hostage to a militaristic rhetoric and still remains convinced of the need for America to be a world leader, even if no one has asked for it. Americans are apparently not yet ready to be receptive to the quiet language of Rand Paul, but they are receptive, although in a slightly different, more familiar form, to similar statements by Donald Trump.