It was a busy night on the campaign trail Tuesday, as candidates in several key races faced off in debates. Moderators frequently asked whether candidates thought President Obama should commit US ground troops to the fight against ISIS—and most Republican candidates dodged the question with notable clumsiness.
In North Carolina, which has the third-highest military population among US states, incumbent Democratic Senator Kay Hagan is opposed to troops on the ground. In Tuesday’s debate, moderated by ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, she noted the United States “has many domestic needs at home” and said Iraqi and Syrian soldiers should wage the fight. Then Stephanopoulos put the question to her opponent, Thom Tillis:
STEPHANOPOLOUS: When I was speaking to House Speaker John Boehner last week, he told me that if other nations don’t step forward, the United States would have no choice but to put boots on the ground. Do you agree?
TILLIS: I think one of the reasons that many nations are afraid to step forward is because this president is afraid to lead the world. Normally in crises like these, the president is considered to be the leader of the free world. He rallies nations together to put down terrorist threats like ISIS. But now our allies, our friends across the world, really don’t know where this president stands because he telegraphs his plan to our enemies, he gives strength to the terrorists by telling them what we’re not going to do. He should have everything on the table and he should build some credibility and Senator Hagan should be right there with him.
There’s a small glimmer of an answer in there; Tillis seemed to be suggesting it was best not to say one way or the other whether ground troops should go. Stephanopoulos did not follow up, but Hagan immediately noted that Tillis didn’t answer the question.
In Colorado’s Senate debate on Tuesday, Republican Representative Cory Gardner was directly asked to “describe the circumstances in which you would support American boots on the ground in Syria and Iraq,” and answered with a word salad of attacks on Udall and Obama’s foreign policy. (Democratic incumbent Mark Udall opposes troops on the ground.) Gardner’s answer in full:
GARDNER: Look, our foreign policy is in the situation it is today because of the failure of leadership at the White House. And the president has said his policies are going to be on the ballot this November. Mark Udall voted with those policies 99 percent of the time. The president said we have no strategy when it comes to dealing with ISIL. The president said they were junior varsity actors. The president said we will lead from behind, and that’s Mark Udall’s plan, too, because he agrees with him 99 percent of the time. We must make sure that we protect the safety and security of American families. That’s why I have supported efforts to make sure that we take out the terrorists. But Senator Udall believes the Islamic State is not an imminent threat to our nation. Senator Udall believes that they are not plotting against our country. We had people arrested at Denver International Airport for conspiring with the Islamic State. In Chicago for conspiring with the Islamic State. And Senator Udall doesn’t even show up at the Armed Services hearing when it talks about emerging threats. Senator Udall is absent.
In West Virginia, Democratic challenger Natalie Tennant has plainly said she opposes troops on the ground and, in Tuesday’s debate, reiterated her opposition and cited the pain of having sent her husband off to war. She did give a mini-evasion to the moderator’s question—he noted she opposed ground troops, but asked what future situation might justify them. That’s a tough hypothetical to answer, and Tennant basically said she would need more information.
When the moderator put the same question to the Republican candidate, Representative Shelley Moore Capito, she evaded the question of ground troops entirely:
CAPITO: The visuals of ISIS beheading two Americans and threatening to behead another, and British journalists and aid workers, is just jarring to all of us. I think that because of the president’s weak policies in Iraq, we find ourselves in a position where this terrorist group has been fomenting, raising money, raising membership. I find it frightening in terms of what could happen on our homeland. That has to be what you think about. There is nothing more valuable for us as Americans than our servicemen and women, and I appreciate [Tennant’s] husband’s service to our country. I take these decisions very seriously. I did vote to have the president train the Syrian rebels because I feel like we need a coalition of people that will stop the terrorist group from further growth.
In Georgia’s Senate debate on Tuesday night, the moderator repeatedly pressed Republican David Perdue on whether he wants ground troops in Iraq and Syria, and this is the closest Perdue came to an answer: “If we put boots on the ground, that better have a chance to win. Right now we don’t have that.” (I have no idea what that means.)
In Virginia’s Senate race last night, Republican Ed Gillespie said only that Obama should not have ruled out ground troops, and incumbent Senator Mark Warner agreed.
But in most races, Republican candidates are working off the same script: avoid calling for ground troops at all costs and simply step around the question. The similarly scripted attacks on Obama’s alleged incoherence on ISIS seem rather strange given that fairly massive dodge.