Paris attacks bring migrant crisis, Islamic State strategy to U.S. political forefront

GWEN IFILL: Politics and political campaigns are in the end about leadership. And from the campaign trail, to the presidential podium, to the halls of Congress, leaders weighed in on the fallout from Friday's Paris attacks.

Over the weekend, the Paris attacks quickly turned into a political Rorschach test. Among many Republicans, the debate centered on the wisdom of allowing Syrian refugees to receive U.S. asylum.

SEN. TED CRUZ, Republican Presidential Candidate: We can't roll the dice with the safety of Americans and bring in people for whom there is an unacceptable risk that they could be jihadists coming here to kill Americans. We just saw in Paris what happens when a country allows ISIS terrorists to come in as refugees, and the result can be a horrific loss of life.

BEN CARSON, Republican Presidential Candidate: Bringing people into this country from that area of the world I think is a huge mistake, because why wouldn't they infiltrate them with people who are ideologically opposed to us? It would be foolish for them not to do that. But to bring them here under these circumstances is a suspension of intellect.

JEB BUSH, Republican Presidential Candidate: We have a responsibility to help with refugees after proper screening. And I think our focus ought to be on the Christians who have no place in Syria anymore. They're being beheaded. They're being executed by both sides. And I think we have a responsibility to help.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO, Republican Presidential Candidate: The problem is, we can't background-check them. You can't pick up the phone and call Syria. And that's one of the reasons why I have said we won't be able to take more refugees.

GWEN IFILL: At least a dozen Republican governors agreed, declaring they would try to keep the refugees out.

President Obama, speaking in Turkey at the G20 summit of nations, pushed back.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: When I hear political leaders suggesting that there would be a religious test for which a person who's fleeing from a war-torn country is admitted, when some of those folks themselves come from families who benefited from protection when they were fleeing political persecution, that's shameful.

GWEN IFILL: At their weekend debate, Democrats reacted to the crisis by focusing on what action the U.S. should be willing to take to bring down ISIS.

HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON, Democratic Presidential Candidate: We have to look at ISIS as the leading threat of an international terror network. It cannot be contained. It must be defeated. But this cannot be an American fight, although American leadership is essential.

MARTIN O'MALLEY, Democratic Presidential Candidate: I would disagree with Secretary Clinton, respectfully, on this score. This actually is America's fight. It cannot solely be America's fight.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS, Democratic Presidential Candidate: I would argue that the disastrous invasion of Iraq, something that I strongly opposed, has unraveled the region completely and led to the rise of al-Qaida and to ISIS.

GWEN IFILL: And on Capitol Hill, Republicans in both chambers called for the president to halt the flow of Syrian migrants into the U.S.

For more on what has been said and what hasn't, we turn to Politics Monday with Tamara Keith of NPR reporting tonight from Des Moines and Amy Walter of The Cook Political Report with me here.

So, Amy, are you at all surprised that this turned to politics so quickly, this debate over Paris?

AMY WALTER, The Cook Political Report: No.

This has been sort of the reality of the political campaign. Look, you have a big — this is a very serious issue, and this is a very serious crisis. And the fact is, we're in the middle of a presidential campaign. This, of course, should be part of the 2016 campaign.

What's surprising, I guess, is how quickly this has been divided along partisan lines, especially on the issue of accepting Syrian refugees, that Democrats almost universally on the side of the president, saying we should still accept Syrian immigrants after a lengthy process vetting those folks who want to come into this country, and Republicans pretty much universally saying we shouldn't accept them at all.

GWEN IFILL: Tamara, it's kind of an intellectual debate, because can these states really block refugees?

TAMARA KEITH, NPR: It's not clear that they can.

But they're certainly out there making a statement. And I think it's much easier to make a statement about refugees and saying, hey, let's put a stop to this, than going out and offering a solution on how to deal with the crisis with ISIS and Syria. That is a messy, sticky situation, which is much more complicated and nuanced than simply saying, I don't want refugees in my state.

AMY WALTER: Yes.

GWEN IFILL: It's quite a test, however, of foreign policy chops, these unexpected crises, no matter what they are. In this case, for instance, we saw Dr. Ben Carson on "FOX News Sunday" being asked repeatedly, what would he do, who would he call, how would he build a coalition? He didn't seem to be prepared with an answer, Amy.

AMY WALTER: No, he definitely struggled on the answer to that question. He struggled on answers to a couple other questions, including how to enforce a no-fly zone. What happens if we actually do down a Russian plane? What does that mean for American foreign policy vis-a-vis our relationship with Russia?

We saw that he struggled during the debate as well. Look, I don't think this is going to change the overall contours of the political race right now on the Republican side. What I do think it does, though, is put another piece into the vetting process for voters, that while they're not making a decision today about who they're going to vote for, eventually, they're going to get to that place.

And I think, once we hit the end of December, early January, people start to get very serious about not just who they like, but who they are going to vote for. And the idea of who is going to look like a commander in chief is going to be a very important piece of this. It always was, but I think Paris made that even more important.

GWEN IFILL: So, Tamara, if you are Jeb Bush or Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, how do you think that they are treating this in a way that they think would help them?

TAMARA KEITH: Hillary Clinton is certainly talking about it. However, she's not making it a complete focus of her campaign.

I saw her speak yesterday here in Iowa. She spent the first couple of minutes, two, thee minutes of her remarks talking about the terrorist attacks in Paris and the need to build international coalitions to fight ISIS. And then she quickly turned and started talking about the economy, because I think many Democrats and actually some Republicans still feel that, when it comes down to it, people are going to vote based on the economy more than they will vote based on these international affairs.

AMY WALTER: And that's been a big division between Democrats and Republicans from the very beginning, even before these attacks in Paris, that Republican primary voters much more interested on the issues like terrorism, security, Democratic voters much more interested in the economy.

So I think this just helped to, again, underscore that the Republican primary electorate interests pretty different from Democratic interests.

GWEN IFILL: So, is that the sweet spot we're seeing with these Republican governors calling to keep refugees out, which is they're talking about something that basically affects people at home while speaking to the foreign policy component?

AMY WALTER: I think that's a part of it, but I think they're also speaking to their base, which is a group of voters, Republican primary voters.

This is a concern that they have held a long time, again, before we had the Paris attacks, about what's going to happen if we bring in refugees from Syria. This was not an overwhelmingly popular idea even among the broader American electorate. This has obviously been a party too that is very much opposed to immigration, illegal immigration.

And even you have groups of Republican voters who want to see legal immigration scaled back, and of course the big fight with President Obama on what to do with Gitmo detainees, not bringing those prisoners into the United States.

GWEN IFILL: Well, Tamara, let's talk about President Obama, because while he was traveling in Turkey today, he took many occasions, probably because he was asked a question so many times, to defend his policy going after ISIS, and he grew more exasperated with each question.

But he also took the opportunity to say, listen, what these folks who don't know what they're talking about are doing was what he was essentially saying need to step back. We are taking this more seriously than that. Did he make his case?

TAMARA KEITH: Well, he was certainly taking a swipe at — at least, not so subtly, I think, at Ted Cruz without saying his name and the people who talk about things like, well, we know Christians would come here, and we would be OK with maybe Christians, but we really have to vet the ideology.

GWEN IFILL: That would be Jeb Bush, right. Right. Jeb Bush made that point.

TAMARA KEITH: Yes.

GWEN IFILL: So, but is that — does the White House just go exasperated, not only in an election year with these outside questions, but also good and legitimate questions about whether their strategy is working?

TAMARA KEITH: Well, what the president seems to be saying is, you guys are criticizing me, but then when you say what we should do, we're actually doing that.

There have been huge numbers of airstrikes, and there are advisers on the ground. And many of these things that are being prescribed by his opponents are things that he's doing, but maybe it's more a matter of rhetoric. The way he talks about this is in a way trying to still build bridges. And I think a lot of people are calling on him to just come out and be stronger about it.

GWEN IFILL: Well, it's the word of strength, Amy.

The Democrats are talking a lot about strategy, but you also hear people like Donald Trump saying, we should be bombing the oil trucks. Look, they bombed the oil trucks. You also hear everybody — Donald — John McCain, not running for president, but Lindsey Graham, who is, talking about being stronger, boots on the ground, something that Ben Carson is also talking about.

Is that a vulnerable — is that a vulnerability?

AMY WALTER: For the Republicans?

GWEN IFILL: Yes, and for the Democrats.

AMY WALTER: Yes.

I think for the Democrats — and Tamara made this point as well, which is, it's not just the president getting criticized for this policy. It's going to be Hillary Clinton and Democrats who have to defend the current administration policy, Hillary Clinton even more so because of course she was part of the administration as a secretary of state.

And you saw on Saturday night nobody did a particularly good job defending the president, I didn't see that, or his strategy on ISIS.

And then you looking to the Republicans who are pretty well unified, we need to be stronger, we need to send a stronger message, no Syrian refugees, and yet they're kind of divided on, well, how intensively do we get involved?

Rubio is suggesting, yes, we could send military there, but not as strongly as somebody like Donald Trump, who wants to do it immediately. So I think those are where the fault lines are going to open up for Republicans is how quickly do you invest? The public is clearly is going to be very wary about more military involvement.

GWEN IFILL: And final thought, Tamara. We — Amy just mentioned in passing there was a Democratic presidential debate on Saturday. And I do wonder whether, in the end, anything changed in the atmosphere after that. Obviously, both O'Malley and Sanders tried to take more direct aim at Hillary Clinton.

TAMARA KEITH: I think that there is a little bit more negativity, especially coming from Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley.

He's definitely more willing to go on the attack now after that debate than he had been before. And I think Bernie Sanders also is more directly addressing Hillary Clinton. And Hillary Clinton herself is going after them a little bit more. So, you know, the gloves maybe came off ever so slightly, but it's still pretty tame compared to the Republican side of the fight.

GWEN IFILL: OK. Tamara Keith in Des Moines, Iowa, for us tonight of NPR, and Amy Walter of Cook Political Report, thank you both, as always.

TAMARA KEITH: Thanks, Gwen.

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