Americans who tuned in to Tuesday night's Republican presidential debate on national security and terrorism got a show, complete with shouting, insults, bickering and eye-rolling, but very little of the substance needed to face the difficult decisions ahead.
Debates have never been the place for detailed dives into specific strategies. By their nature they encourage candidates to go for easy platitudes, applause lines and bumper-sticker definitions. But the GOP debate in Las Vegas hit new lows, in part because celebrity businessman Donald Trump's bombast and persistent popularity have dragged down the level of discussion to simplistic talk about "bad guys," "winning" and making the country great again — whatever that means.
It is inconceivable that such a highly educated group of accomplished people know so little about foreign policy, national security and the tortured history of conflict in the Middle East. Yet, again and again, viewers were subjected to mind-numbingly shallow answers that were beneath most of the candidates who offered them. Princeton-educated Sen. Ted Cruz repeated his desire to "carpet-bomb" ISIL into oblivion, but when pressed on whether that meant he would destroy their capital city, he demurred, saying it would be targeted to troops and not civilians. That's not how carpet-bombing works, senator, and carpet bombing is not what this country did during the Gulf War.
Trump trotted out his usual mishmash of bite-sized proposals to effectively demonize Muslims and immigrants, this time adding that the U.S. should kill the families of suspected terrorists as a means of deterrence and shut down parts of the Internet.
It was painful to watch once-respected politicians struggle to play at Trump's basement level of debate. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush tried to tackle the brash billionaire — largely unassisted by his colleagues — saying that Trump could not insult his way to the presidency. Trump delivered a verbal slapping, pointing out to Bush that polls showed "I'm at 42 and you're at 3," noting that Bush was edging closer to the edge of the stage in each debate. True enough, but it was a schoolyard bully's response and not worthy of a future president of the United States.
The two GOP senators who should offer the party its best chance for reaching out to the nation's growing Hispanic population instead squabbled over which president had deported more immigrants (Cruz was wrong on that one, too: It's Obama, not Bill Clinton or George W. Bush), while Sen. Marco Rubio tried in vain to defend his conservative credentials against an immigration overhaul once hailed, but now out of favor in his party.
Before Tuesday night's debate, Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton gave a substantive address in Minneapolis on national security that, however flawed, offered elements that merit serious consideration. Few may have seen it, because it received a fraction of the coverage. Democrats will have their shot at countering the GOP candidates on national security during this Saturday's debate in New Hampshire.
Trump, against all odds, continues to ride high in the polls. That means Americans have arrived at a very dangerous place. The election is less than a year away, and every outrageous statement Trump makes, every attempt to play on Americans' fears, seem only to catapult him higher and force the remaining candidates to follow his lead.
It's time for the show to end. Whether Bush is the right candidate or not, he is right about one thing: The nation faces serious problems and is in desperate need of serious solutions. The biggest responsibility, however, lies with voters. It's up to them to demand a level of discourse that rises above taunts and accusations. If they do so, Trump will fade, and a statesman — or woman — may yet rise.