Campaigns tap Islamic State fears by zeroing in on national security

Many Republican candidates are pouncing on fears about the Islamic State to flex ideological and political muscle. Political director Lisa Desjardins offers a roundup of rhetoric in the debate over national security, and Tamara Keith of NPR and Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report join Gwen Ifill to take a closer look.

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    The debate over what role the U.S. should play in the fight against ISIS has also become central to the 2016 campaign. But how are the candidates talking about it?

    Political director Lisa Desjardins reports.


    Welcome to campaign national security, with the Islamic State group at the center.

  • SEN. MARCO RUBIO, Republican Presidential Candidate:

    They are growing. They're in Afghanistan. ISIS is now on the ground in Afghanistan recruiting Taliban fighters away from the Taliban. They're radical killers. And either they win or we win.


    Many candidates, like Marco Rubio today in Iowa, are pouncing on fears about ISIS to flex ideological and political muscle. Republicans in particular have strong motivation. In a new ABC/"Washington Post" poll, when asked for their top issue, just 18 percent of voters who lean Democratic named terrorism. The number was more than twice as high, 42 percent, for those leaning Republican.

    Both volume and controversy are increasing. Speaking in Alabama over the weekend, Donald Trump tried to connect American Muslims with 9/11.

  • DONALD TRUMP, Republican Presidential Candidate:

    I watched when the World Trade Center came tumbling down. And I watched in Jersey City, New Jersey, where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down.


    Sunday, Trump was challenged on that point by ABC's George Stephanopoulos.


    You know, the police say that didn't happen. And all those rumors have been on the Internet for some time. So did you misspeak yesterday?


    It did happen. I saw it. It was on television. I saw it.


    You saw that with your own eyes?


    Fellow candidate and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said Sunday he did not remember Muslims celebrating 9/11 in his state.

    There is mistrust and concern. But it is also complicated. In a new CBS poll of Iowa Republicans, 74 percent supported sending ground troops to fight ISIS, but less than half said the Paris attacks have any influence on their vote.

    Meanwhile, Democrats like Hillary Clinton are using foreign policy and Republican's rhetoric on refugees as their own foil. She tweeted out over the weekend: "Our values are stronger than fear. Slamming the door on refugees isn't who we are."

    The war against ISIS is hitting familiar lines in the debate over national security.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Lisa Desjardins.


    So, it's Politics Monday.

    Amy Walter of The Cook Political Report and Tamara Keith of NPR are here to talk about it all.

    Let's start with where Hillary Clinton left off, talking about basically the politics of fear. How much of that is a major feature now of this campaign, Amy?

  • AMY WALTER, The Cook Political Report:

    Well, I think we're definitely hearing a lot more about it because it's in the news right now.

    And yet, at the same time, what we know about this campaign is that what Republicans are talking about and what's really important to them in their primary is very different from what Democrats say is really important to them. The issue of terrorism and security has always been an important issue for Republicans, even before these attacks in Paris. It's now, of course, taking more import.

    Among Democrats, the economy, health care always a more important issue. I think terrorism will move up there now, but not to the extent it is with Republicans. And on the issue of Syrian refugees, you ask Republicans how they feel about it, 80 percent say, we don't want them here at all; 65 percent of Democrats say, we should bring them in, so just two entirely different worlds.


    There is definitely an us vs. them theme emerging that is in this campaign, at least right this moment. Who's playing it best or the most, I should say?


    Well, certainly, people like Donald Trump is — is playing it up big time. Ben Carson is also playing into that.

    But even Marco Rubio came out with an ad where he very clearly said this is a fight of civilizations, this is between the left and our ideals and Islamic extremism on the other side, of course, using the term Islamic extremism and also at the end of that ad saying they want to attack us because we want girls to go to school.


    But we just saw what Amy said about the numbers; 83 percent of people in the CBS poll, I guess — CBS poll — fear an imminent attack. So maybe they're speaking in a real way to voters' fears in a way that counts.


    Well, what they're speaking to right now definitely — and this is especially true among Republicans — is to a base that feels like this president has not done the job necessary to deal with terrorism, to deal with security in any way, and the frustration that they're feeling that this has been sort of this wishy-washy foreign policy, there is no resolution, it's all nebulous.

    That's why when you hear Donald Trump coming out with the — this is what we're going to do, we're going to bomb the you-know-what out of ISIS, we just need to bomb the oil fields, it is going to be easy, we just need to be strong, it speaks to a Republican electorate that feels as if the president has sort of squandered away American power.


    And this at the same time that President Obama is saying, well, we just have to stay the course, we can intensify, but the strategy needs to remain the strategy.

    And that is not very satisfying. If you are afraid, if you saw the beheading videos before and you are seeing this violence in France, and you want something, then bomb the expletive deleted out of them is a lot more satisfying than, well, the strategy that many don't agree with, we're going to stick with it, but maybe intensify a little.


    And, tonight, the State Department puts out a worldwide travel alert.

    Now we — how does that work, however, for Hillary Clinton, because she's a former State Department — secretary of state, worked in the Obama administration? Yet polls say two things. One is that they think that she is strong. The other is that they don't trust her.


    And those — she's had a trust issue for a long time in her polling.

    She, I think, feels like — for whatever reason, feels like she is strongest when she is talking about economic issues, talking about empathizing with the concerns of families. She gave a big speech late last week about her plan for ISIS. She came out strong. She came out asking for more than President Obama wanted. She talked about no-fly zones in Syria. She talked about needing more special operations ground forces to maybe even call in airstrikes.

    So she went a little bit further than the president, but I think she would be perfectly happy, for whatever reason, mostly talking about domestic issues, in part because that's where the Democratic electorate is.


    And, in part — I think's that's exactly right — and in part because there is not a good answer.




    And we saw it in the debate, the last debate we had for the Democrats. When asked about ISIS, there wasn't a really good answer out of Hillary Clinton. When asked about her role in Libya, there wasn't a really good answer from Hillary Clinton.


    But think about the conversation we're actually having, especially on the Republican side, admittedly. We should bloom the bleep out of them, we should surveil mosques, we should track refugees.

    Compare that to what George W. Bush said the following week after 9/11, 2001. We have a little bit of it.


    These acts of violence against innocents violate the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith. And it's important for my fellow Americans to understand that. The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That's not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace. These terrorists don't represent peace. They represent evil and war.


    Now how things have changed, especially for a party which identified itself after its last election as its goal for the next election being more open and tolerant.



    Now, to be fair, a lot of this energy right now is coming from one person, and that's Donald Trump talking about mosques and talking about celebration in the streets of New Jersey when the towers came down. That didn't really happen.





    But — so a lot of that is coming specifically from him.

    But I think, to a broader point, where you are hearing about a clash of civilizations, radical Islam, it is — I think it goes back at President Obama, and this real deep disdain, frustration, whatever you want to call it, probably deeper, stronger word than that, about the president's handling of this issue, how he's handled the Middle East, how he's handled foreign policy.

    And I think that's a lot of why the rhetoric that you heard from President Bush sounds very different from the rhetoric of the Republicans. And, remember, the Republican Party, hard to think, that was 2001, how much further to the right Republicans have moved and how much further to the left the Democrats have moved just in those 15 years.


    And there is also this element, though, that George W. Bush was the president. He was the leader of the Republican Party.

    These people are running for president. Those are very different motives. There's very different things driving a presidential candidate and a president of the United States.


    Is it also part — partly in the interest of some of these candidates to wind this into the immigration debate, something which has really worked for candidates like Donald Trump, but not only Donald Trump, also worked for Ted Cruz, also worked for Marco Rubio?


    Yes, there is definitely a message that is being sent that there are unsafe people out there, and if you put Democrats in charge, they are not going to keep you safe. Right?

    That's the number one job that government is there to do. It's the one thing that Republicans can agree on, that the role of government is to keep people safe. They disagree with a lot of the other roles of government, but that one, absolutely.

    And so what you're going to see and the question I think that you were raising before is, how do you transition from this kind of rhetoric in a primary to going to a general election, where you do have to look presidential and unify the country?

    We hear over and over — I'm sure you do, too — from voters the frustration they have with the dysfunction in Washington, the frustration they have that we have a country that's pulling apart. Who's going to be the unifier?



    OK. Well, we didn't even get to talk about the Louisiana governor's race, but we will get back to that at another time.

    Amy Walter and Tamara Keith, thank you both very much.


    Thank you.


    You're welcome.

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