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GOP struggles with identity crisis on foreign policy

Heather Madden

National security was front and center this past week as nine presidential hopefuls took to the stage for the final Republican showdown of the year.

The fifth GOP debate demonstrated just how much the political landscape has shifted in the four weeks since the last debate. Domestic policy is no longer king, instead — in the wake of San Bernardino and Paris — candidates discussed how to best protect Americans from terror.

In November, prior to the mass shooting in San Bernardino that left 14 Americans dead, a New York Times poll found only 4 percent of Americans said terrorism was the most important problem facing the United States. Now, 44 percent of Americans believe an attack is “very likely” to happen in the next few months — the highest percentage expressing that belief since the weeks after 9/11.

It’s no surprise that political conversation has turned from the economy to safety and defense. Immigration — always contentious — was now seen through this national security lens.

Most candidates challenged Donald Trump’s call for Muslims to be temporarily barred from entering the United States. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush was particularly outspoken on this front. Candidate Rand Paul concurred, stating firmly, “I think if we ban certain religions, if we censor the Internet, I think that at that point the terrorists will have won.”

The candidates also offered competing visions on national security. Marco Rubio called for ground forces to fight ISIS, consisting primarily of Sunni Arabs.Ted Cruz asserted that the United States should use “overwhelming air power” against the militant group. Paul urged a more isolationist and noted that if the United States had gone through with its threat to bomb Syria for using chemical weapons, it’s likely that ISIS would have an even greater stronghold within the country today.

Trump defended both his proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States as well as his recent comments about “taking out” the families of members of ISIS. Trump also said he would work to prevent members of ISIS from using the Internet to recruit American fighters, even if it means completely shutting down parts of the Web.

For many, the depth and degree of varying viewpoints reflect a current GOP identity crisis on foreign policy. These disputes may create an opening to be exploited by the eventual nominee’s ability to take on former secretary of state and presumptive Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, who criticized the GOP field on its national security views as “bluster and bigotry.”

While the election is still 11 months away and other topics will no doubt find their way to the forefront, the most recent debate suggests what is shaping up to be the defining issue of the 2016 election: national security. Politics will take a back seat to Santa and his elves over the next few weeks, but candidates should keep in mind that Americans are judging candidates more than ever on who is best suited to be our next commander-in-chief.

Heather Madden is the advocacy projects manager at the Independent Women's Voice.