In the immediate aftermath of Friday’s terrorist attacks in Paris, a U.S. presidential election that’s trained almost exclusively on domestic concerns seemed poised to redirect its attention abroad.
Instead, among Republican contenders, the debate already has collapsed back within our borders and along familiar lines. The most explosive topic isn’t how to bring the fight to ISIS in Syria and Iraq, but rather what to do with the Syrian refugees that group has helped displace. And while most candidates have jockeyed for the most hostile ground—Donald Trump suggested shutting down mosques here while New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said he’d even reject Syrian toddlers — former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush on Tuesday broke from the pack to endorse support for refugees, pending security checks.
“The answer to this is not to ban people from coming,” Bush said in an interview with Bloomberg. Embracing refugees, he added, has been “a noble tradition in our country for many years.”
In that sense, the argument is grafting onto an already-churning fight in the GOP over immigration from Mexico and points south. Bush entered the race vowing to stand by his embrace of comprehensive immigration reform, despite the liability it presented with conservative voters who demand a hardline approach. It hasn’t worked out very well. Polling support for the one-time frontrunner has dipped into single digits both nationally and in the states hosting the first contests of the primary. Trump, meanwhile, co-owns the lead, a position he’s sustained for months on a pledge to go further than the rest of the field in cracking down on anyone in the country illegally.
“What’s clear is Jeb Bush is trying to act like the adult in the room to declare what our American values are and at the same time show a longer view of how to handle the refugee problem,” says Republican strategist Ron Bonjean, who is not affiliated with any of the presidential campaigns. “The challenge is that other candidates like Donald Trump are getting a lot of political traction with Republican voters by just simply saying ‘Hell no.’”
Bush’s comments came a day after he directly conflated immigration reform with counterterrorism. Speaking at a private fundraising event in Dallas, per a recording obtained by the Washington Post, the candidate argued that “if you enforce the laws properly and allow that to be the defining element of our society, you won’t have the kinds of problems that Paris now has, where enclaves exist of people that are second-class citizens” and aren’t fully integrated into French society. By contrast, he said, “America doesn’t do it that way and restoring that with the proper immigration policy is something that I think is important.”
Some conventional wisdom emerging since the attacks held the violence would remind Republican voters that the world remains complex and dangerous, thereby diminishing support for those candidates like Trump and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson who have no experience in elected office. (Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a foreign policy hawk, called the attacks a game-changer at a Capitol Hill fundraiser on Monday, according to an attendee.) But a Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted after the attacks found that voters, asked for their top pick to address terrorism from the full slate of 2016 contenders, split their support between Trump and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. And 36% of Republican voters said they now have more confidence in Trump’s ability to do the job.
The verdict seems clear and not altogether surprising, considering the contest so far: GOP voters prefer Trump’s strongman bluster to Bush’s nuance, and that impulse is only reconfirmed by global upheaval.
The rest of the field, meanwhile, is moving closer to Trump’s position on Syrian refugees, mirroring their rightward surge in the immigration debate that was front and center until Friday. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, for example, appeared on Fox News just last year advocating continued asylum for those fleeing the Syrian chaos. “We have welcomed refugees, the tired huddled masses for centuries,” he said at the time. In the wake of the attacks, Cruz is now proposing legislation to bar them entry to the U.S. On immigration reform, the candidate has undergone a similar conversion from qualified advocate to categorical opponent.