Well, the big Republican presidential debate is over and the message is clear: Be afraid. Be very afraid.
“America has been betrayed,” began Chris Christie, setting the tone for the night, which might be described as bellicose paranoia. The betrayers were President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. His example of the terror they have wrought was the Los Angeles school system, which closed Tuesday after an email threat from someone who described himself as a Muslim terrorist.
“Think about the mothers who will take those children tomorrow morning to the bus stop wondering whether their children will arrive back on that bus safe and sound,” Christie said darkly. “Think about the fathers of Los Angeles who tomorrow will head off to work and wonder about the safety of their wives and their children.”
This is probably not the time to point out that the governor of New Jersey seems to have a rather retro view of the roles of mothers, who are likely to be heading off to work themselves. But here’s the thing: The threat was a hoax. New York got the same message and kept classes going after officials determined that the writer was not only a phony, but a phony who had no clue how to sound like either a Muslim or a terrorist.
The lesson from Los Angeles would seem to be that the country needs to find a way to operate in a calm and rational manner, aware of the possibility of disaster but clear eyed about the fact that the odds against a terrorist attack at any particular place or time are astronomical. We are most definitely not in need of politicians trying to scare the pants off the voting public.
“We haven’t heard a lot about Ronald Reagan’s city on a hill,” questioner Hugh Hewitt said rather plaintively, yearning for some optimism. The audience was getting the Ronald Reagan who blew up a wagon full of gunpowder in “Cattle Queen of Montana.”
The topic was national defense, and Donald Trump seemed stumped by a question about the three ways America could conduct nuclear attacks – from air, land or sea.
Not a problem. He can hire somebody who knows about nuclear weapons. Somebody really great.
The campaign’s current up-and-comer, Ted Cruz, expressed enthusiasm for carpet-bombing, a tactic he seemed to be unaware the United States hasn’t used since Vietnam, and one that he apparently imagines could be targeted so strategically that it would kill only terrorists.
On the plus side, Jeb Bush did perk up a bit. About time. I am privileged to be on the Jeb! campaign mailing list and his pre-debate missives were possibly the most pathetic in recent presidential history. (“… I need to know you’re with me. Are you, Friend? Do you have my back? If so, please chip in just $1 right now to say you’re on my team tonight.”)
Let’s see, what else? Carly Fiorina promised to bring back “warrior class” generals like David Petraeus who “retired early because they told President Obama things that he didn’t want to hear,” skipping the part about giving classified materials to a biographer with whom he was having an extramarital affair.
But the real battle was over who could make things sound more dire, or offer solutions more drastic.
Christie got a Facebook question from a young woman who thought it was a little uncharitable to rule out accepting any refugees, including orphans under the age of 5. “Now listen, I’m a former federal prosecutor. …” he responded.
In summary: Kill the families. Screw the orphans. Carpet-bomb Syria, but in a targeted way. Send Jeb Bush a dollar. On to 2016.
Gail Collins is a columnist for The New York Times.