In case you missed it, and you probably did, Tuesday night’s Republican presidential debate was one to watch. For starters, it couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time. With mass shootings, school shutdowns and racial unrest over police misconduct, the public’s anxiety is at an all time high. Polls reflect an American electorate that puts security as the number one issue. Seven out of 10 people think we’re headed in the wrong direction. So it should come as no surprise that national security was center stage. What is surprising is that many predictions went out the window.
It was finally a CNN presidential debate with substance. That’s what happens when Wolf Blitzer moderates. The decision to focus on national security helped to crystalize candidate leadership qualities, divide the strong from the weak and clarify what most of us seek in a commander-in-chief. For the frontrunner, Donald Trump, it presented both opportunity and ridicule. His supporters cite security as his strength, but it became clear that depth is not. “We should be able to penetrate the Internet to find ISIS,” he said about a statement he made to “close the Internet.” From combatting ISIS to the Pentagon’s new policy allowing women in combat, a ban on Muslims, the administration’s “failed Syrian policy” and deporting 10 million illegal immigrants, the questions required a level skill that separated the wheat from the chaff.
Bush was the lion and Trump was the lamb. Trump holds the largest lead with a whopping 41 percent support among the Republican contenders, according to a Monmouth University poll. He is popular because of his ability to slice his opponents with the lash of the tongue, yet Tuesday night he left the attacks to his challengers. Jeb Bush took the bait exhibiting newly found confidence when her declared flatly, “Donald is a chaos candidate and would be chaos president.” He went on to criticize the businessman’s proposed ban on Muslims as “just crazy.”
The biggest beefs broke out between Cruz and Rubio, and Rand and Rubio. Cuts in defense spending, the level of surveillance that should be allowable by the government and what constitutes amnesty caused the quibbles among these three. Ted Cruz said he’d “carpet bomb ISIS,” while Rubio retorted, “You can’t carpet bomb ISIS if you don’t have planes to bomb them with.” Expect to see more of this when the debates resume in January. It’s good for the process and the reason we have debates to begin with.
Bush, Christie, Rubio and Paul – all proved to be solid contenders. They each performed well, had a strong command of the issues and clearly defined themselves as candidates who could stand against (presumed Democratic nominee) Hillary Clinton. For Chris Christie’s part, he clearly relished playing traffic cop to the bickering: “If your eyes are glazed over like mine, this is what it’s like is on the floor of the Senate.” He added, “I had to make these decisions for seven years. We worked with the Muslim community to get intelligence. This is the difference of actually doing something rather than debating about it.” Rand Paul, who took a dig at Christie’s “Bridgegate” scandal, insisted that combating terrorism requires “Arab boots on the ground. We need to quit arming the allies of ISIS.” And, Bush was quick to highlight he was first out of the gate with a detailed policy to attack ISIS.
If you care about safety and security – and we all do – these kind of debates matter. We face a very real and dangerous threat at home and abroad. Terrorism is at our doorstep and the nation’s next leader has to be prepared and equipped to deal soberly, judiciously, with strength and resolve. While each of the GOP candidates presented a version of their promise to “make America a safer place,” only one will be entrusted to carry that mantle into the general election. I’d say – keep an eye on Christie and Rubio.
Tara Wall is an ESSENCE contributor and founder, executive producer and CEO of Princess Tara Productions, an independent multimedia production company and creative agency established in 2010.