Throughout this bizarre Republican presidential race, those derisively referred to as the party's establishment have reassured themselves with this thought: Eventually, our voters will come around. They'll end their fascination with these buffoonish "outsiders" who proudly proclaim that they know virtually nothing about how government works. They'll turn back toward a more experienced candidate who has a chance to win the general election. After all, that's what they always do. There may be a fight in the primaries, but the comforting middle-aged white guy is the one who gets the nomination in the end. And at this point, the establishment would settle for someone who isn't middle-aged or white, as long as he's not Donald Trump or Ben Carson.
But if they think that the terrorist attacks in Paris will bring that day any closer, they've got another thing coming.
Nevertheless, with our attention turned back to terrorism, those establishment figures are practically breathing a sigh of relief. Now our voters will come around, they're saying. "I think that when you look at the dimensions of this tragedy, most Republican voters will not be satisfied with 'We'll bomb the S out of them," Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) told The New York Times, referring to Trump's comments about ISIS. "Bombast doesn't cut it. Inexperience doesn't cut it," agreed former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge.
"Those who have a record of governance and demonstrated leadership capabilities — their stock is going to rise." "It's one thing to have a protest vote," said Rep. Peter King of New York. "If anything good can come of this tragedy, I would hope it would steer the debate toward who can handle Al Qaeda and ISIS and away from sound bites." That came from a Politico article that noted with admiration that some of the non-outsider candidates "spoke fluently on foreign affairs on the Sunday shows," adding that Jeb Bush also "spoke confidently about foreign affairs on both CNN's 'State of the Union' and NBC's 'Meet the Press.'"
That's not exactly a high bar — "speaking confidently" is what politicians do, whether they actually know anything or not. But is there any reason to believe that Republican voters are going to turn away from Trump and Carson and toward some seasoned, steady alternative? When was the last time the electorate reacted to a foreign threat with cool, considered rationality? Don't forget that we're not talking about the whole electorate here, just the Republican one.
If anything, a large terrorist attack — even one overseas, let alone one here in the United States — is likely to push voters toward the candidates offering the most simplistic answers, the answers with high emotional content that feed both people's fears and their desire to strike out against those who would make them afraid. What's going to be more compelling to primary voters, the candidate who says, "We need a carefully crafted strategy that plans for the long-term and accounts for the complex politics of the region," or the one who says, "Bomb them all to hell!"?
Here's the second problem with the hopes of the establishment: Who's the seasoned statesman they have in mind? Is it Jeb Bush, who couldn't seem to figure out whether invading Iraq was a good idea, and has run the most disappointing campaign we've seen in decades? Is it Marco Rubio, the 44-year-old senator who thinks we're in a "clash of civilizations" with ISIS, as though the group constituted its own civilization? Is it Lindsey Graham, polling at the asterisk level, who is constantly peeing his pants over every threat, real or imagined, and wants to launch almost a full-scale re-invasion of Iraq (and Syria) because "there's a 9/11 coming" if we don't? Is it Ted Cruz, who thinks we should bar all Muslim refugees from Syria and accept only Christians? Is it Mike Huckabee, who says that the Paris attacks show why we should trash the nuclear agreement with Iran?
If someone could point me to the experienced Republican candidate who has thoughtful, serious ideas about how to combat ISIS, that would be great. Because I can't say I've noticed him or her among the competitors. And there's no reason to think the Republican electorate would be interested in that person. When Donald Trump says he'd "strongly consider" closing down mosques, don't wait for the voters to rise up in disgust. A recent PPP poll found that 30 percent of Republicans in Iowa believe Islam should be outlawed; another 21 percent weren't sure. In North Carolina, the GOP electorate split 40-40 on whether Islam should be legal.
Many Republican voters have long responded to messages on national security aimed right at the non-thinking portion of their brains. You're with us or you're with the terrorists! Fight 'em over there so we don't have to fight 'em over here! It's possible the issue of terrorism will fade by the time we get to the election a year from now, but either way, Republicans won't be gravitating toward a wise and steady foreign policy hand to carry their banner, for a simple reason: They don't want to, and even if they did, they don't have anyone to turn to.