Donald Trump’s radical proposal last week to bar Muslims from entering the United States dominated news coverage for several days not just in America, but also abroad.
The proposal was so sweeping and controversial that top officials from both parties felt the need to condemn it, as did traditionally non-partisan political experts, like NBC’s Tom Brokaw. U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake, a Republican from Arizona, visited a mosque to show he disagreed with Trump, and Democratic members of Congress said they would invite Muslims to sit with them at next month’s State of the Union address to show their solidarity with those who practice Islam.
But Tuesday night’s debate illustrated that Trump’s proposal has so far not been any kind of game-changer in the Republican race.
None of the other candidates said they agreed with Trump’s proposal. At the same time, Trump’s rivals offered careful, cautious rebuttals to the mogul’s idea, avoiding describing it as fascist or un-American, as even some Republicans critics did.
The proposal that was huge news a week ago did not dominate the debate, which featured the candidates quickly veering into familiar disagreements on immigration and national security and constant bashing of President Obama and Hillary Clinton. The second half of the debate went on as if Trump had not offered one of the most controversial ideas from a leading presidential candidate in recent memory.
“I understand why Donald made that proposal,” Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said when the moderators asked his views about it. “I introduced legislation in the Senate that I believe is more narrowly focused at the actual threat, which is radical Islamic terrorism, and what my legislation would do is suspend all refugees for three years from countries where ISIS or al Qaeda control substantial territory.”
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, asked about his comment last week that Trump’s proposal was unconstitutional, pointedly refused to use that word in the debate. He said Trump’s proposal “isn’t going to happen” (few ideas of presidential candidates become policy during their campaigns) and shifted to attacking Obama.
When CNN’s Wolf Blitzer noted in a question that George W. Bush had visited a mosque in the days after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks and said “Islam is peace,” Jeb Bush avoided that part of the question, focusing on his plan to defeat ISIS.
“Look, this is not a serious proposal,” Bush said of Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims. “In fact, it will push the Muslim world, the Arab world away from us at a time when we need to reengage with them to be able to create a strategy to destroy ISIS.”
He added, “So Donald, you know, is great at the one-liners, but he's a chaos candidate. And he'd be a chaos president. He would not be the commander in chief we need to keep our country safe.”
Bush’s comments were the most forceful of the other candidates in criticizing Trump’s Muslim ban.
Polls throughout the last week had shown a significant number of Republican voters either agreed with Trump’s proposal or had concerns about Muslims entering the United States.
The debate suggested the GOP candidates were aware of those polls. Several of the candidates emphasized their opposition to refugees from Syria entering the Unites States. Cruz effectively said he would bar those from several Middle Eastern countries. Trump strongly defended his initial proposal, even suggesting as president he would deport some refugees Obama had already let into the country.
“Radical Islamic terrorism came into effect even more so than it has been in the past. People like what I say. People respect what I say. And we've opened up a very big discussion that needed to be opened up,” the mogul said.
In fact, for much of the debate, it was not Trump on the defensive, but Rubio. Both Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and Cruz suggested that the 2013 immigration bill that Rubio co-wrote was too lenient about allowing refugees into the United States.
“One of the most troubling aspects of the Rubio-Schumer Gang of Eight Bill was that it gave President Obama blanket authority to admit refugees, including Syrian refugees, without mandating any background checks whatsoever,” Cruz said.
The debate illustrated the shift in the Republican contest from a year ago, when Jeb Bush promised to run from the political center during his race against the other GOP candidates and effectively lose the primary to ensure he could win the general election.
Bush last year had suggested the Republican Party must be more inclusive toward ethnic minorities and other blocs that might be hesitant to back the GOP. But the attacks in Paris and California over the last few weeks have accelerated the shift in the Republican race toward sounding tough, not compassionate.
“We have to get rid of all this PC stuff. And people are worried about if somebody's going to say that I'm Islamophobic or what have you. This is craziness because we are at war,” said neurosurgeon Ben Carson.