A Few Thoughts: The Fifth Republican Debate and the Republican Primary

The latest Republican Primary debate focused on issues of foreign policy and national security. During the marathon debate, clocking in at a total of nearly three hours, all manner of issues were discussed, including ISIS, Assad and Putin on the foreign policy side of the debate. Domestically, national security issues included domestic terrorism threats, immigration, border control and intelligence gathering, including issues related to the NSA.

One of the main points to take away from the debate was the sharp divide among candidates on foreign policy issues pertaining to the Middle East. In this regard, two clear positions arose – an interventionist one, arguing the need to remove Assad and defending America’s role in regime change in Libya. In the debate, this line of argument was pursued most vigorously by Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush. From their perspective, the removal of Bashar Al-Assad from power in Syria is an essential component of any strategy to contain and ultimately defeat ISIS. Despite much reluctance from Americans to intervene extensively in the Middle East, Rubio and Bush strongly pressed the case that the only way for the current Syrian crisis to be solved would be through America taking a direct leading role.

On the other side of the issue, there were candidates who opposed such an action, arguing that it would further destabilize the Middle East and ultimately not be in America’s interest. Ted Cruz was particularly vigorous in making this argument, clashing with Rubio on multiple occasions about America’s record in the past few years in the Middle East. Cruz argued for an ‘America First’ approach to Middle East policy, arguing that if dictators such as Assad needed to stay to ensure stability in the region, despite the atrocities committed by such leaders, than that is the policy which America should follow. Other candidates, most notably Donald Trump, took this line and went further, arguing that further intervention in Syria was a waste of trillions of dollars better spent on domestic priorities.

Another noticeable difference in this debate was the relative lack of speaking time for Donald Trump in comparison to previous debates. Unlike previous debates, Trump did not garner the most speaking time. Both Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio spoke for a longer period of time than Trump in this debate. Overall, the candidates received a surprisingly balanced amount of time to speak. Another takeaway from this debate was the relatively low-key performance of Trump in comparison to previous debates. As well as speaking less than in previous debates, Trump did not appear to have the same level of control over the debate as he has previously enjoyed. Despite this, Trump appears to be enjoying as high a level of popularity among prospective Republican voters as before. According to polling as of the 17th December, Trump still enjoys a substantial lead over his nearest rivals.

With the first Republican Caucus set for February 1 in Iowa, it appears that Donald Trump will likely take a commanding lead in the polls with him into the caucuses. More and more commentators are suggesting that Donald Trump will become the eventual nominee for the Republican Party as a result, almost certainly resulting in a general election face-off against Hillary Clinton. However, polls have shown that Trump would be at a decided disadvantage against Clinton in a general election, especially compared to several other GOP candidates, most notably Marco Rubio. According to RealClearPolitics, as of December 17, Trump would lose to Clinton by a margin of 42%-48%, whilst Rubio would narrowly beat Clinton, 47%-45%. More importantly, over the last month, the overall trend has favoured Clinton more and more strongly against Trump in this scenario, while Rubio is gaining more ground over Clinton. This, therefore, leaves the GOP establishment with a potential problem. A Trump candidacy would likely lose a general election, despite his popularity in the primary. One solution, though controversial and quite unlikely, would be that of a brokered convention. Most likely, however, the field of candidates will narrow down quickly once the state caucuses begin. In any case, it will be fascinating to see how the GOP establishment deals with the increasing possibility of an outsider candidate such as Trump over the coming months.

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