They want a clash of civilizations: After Paris, we need grown-ups, not apocalyptic warriors

The Democrats need to aggressively differentiate between their mature response to ISIS vs. the GOP's childish one

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published November 16, 2015 6:55PM (EST)

Marco Rubio, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz   (AP/Reuters/Gary Cameron/Joe Skipper/Jose Luis Magana)
Marco Rubio, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz (AP/Reuters/Gary Cameron/Joe Skipper/Jose Luis Magana)

It's a step too far to say that the Paris attacks are going to completely reshape the 2016 elections, but still indisputable that national security concerns are going to weigh more prominently on voter minds than they had before. But as the candidates move to respond, one thing is becoming quite clear: The attacks should be a clarifying moment, a reminder that, regardless of the sniping that arises during primary season, electing a Democrat to office instead of a Republican is more important than ever.

Dealing with ISIS is going to require having adults in leadership, people who have the emotional maturity and intelligence to handle a volatile situation with care. The only people in this race who have that kind of maturity are the Democrats, full stop.

As evidence of this, look no further than Jeb Bush, who has been trying to position himself as the grown-up in the Republican race. And while he may be slightly more adult than his yapping counterparts, his behavior after the Paris attacks shows that, compared to Democrats, he's still a little boy who thinks this is all a game. His behavior has been eerily reminiscent of his brother, George W. Bush: The prospect of war, which should make him somber and cautious, is instead causing what looks an awful lot like glee at getting to play war, except with real people's lives instead of toy soldiers.

On Sunday, Bush went on Meet the Press , announcing that the United States "should declare war" and sneering at the Democrats for wanting a more cautious, considered response. His belligerent act continued on Morning Joe, where he barely concealed his excitement at the possibility of war, which was reminiscent of the way his brother, George W. Bush, exploited terrorism to get us embroiled in the Iraq War that he and his team had been plotting for since they stepped into office.

Not than any of the other Republicans are acting any smarter than 5-year-olds on this. Instead, they mostly seem intent on framing this as a Christianity vs. Islam showdown, even though, in reality, ISIS is mostly focused on killing other Muslims for failing to live up to their medieval standards of Islam. Most of the Republican candidates demanded that we refuse to accept Syrian refugees, at least the Muslim ones, demonstrating that they can't tell the difference between the bad guys and their victims. Marco Rubio called the situation a "clash of civilizations," playing into the Christianity vs. Islam argument. Donald Trump is basically calling for an end to religious freedom in the face of all this.

The Democrats are in a bad spot. The situation with ISIS is complicated and talking about it doesn't fit as easily into a soundbite as chest-thumping rhetoric that paints this all as another Crusade does.

That said, the fact that Republicans are acting like total infants about this does present Democratic candidates with an opportunity. It's hard to get on cable news with elaborate, wonky explanations about how ISIS must be fought with a mix of intelligence-gathering, undermining some of the unseen sources of support, and that any military response is going to be complicated and aimed at bleeding them out instead of the old rules of conquest. It's even harder to explain that there is no simple solution that will fix everything in one fell swoop and that this might take years upon years of careful work to improve things.

But one thing that can be done is delineating a strong line between the grown-up Democrats and the feet-kicking Republicans.

The talking point, for Hillary Clinton and other Democrats, should be that Republicans are a bunch of children who like to play dress-up and act tough, but when they actually get the reins of power, they are in way over their heads. Photographs of George W. Bush in his flight suit pretending he'd won a war because he had a banner would be a useful reminder. Clinton in particular should be quick to remind people that while Republicans like to talk about how tough they are, she and Obama were the ones who actually killed Osama Bin Laden, with no flight suits required.

Deeds, not words: Democrats have a real strength here, if they're willing to use it. Conservatives right now are whining and fussing because Democratic candidates are wisely refusing to use provocative terms like "radical Islam." The reasoning behind this is sound: Islam isn't the enemy and, in fact, most of the victims of ISIS are Muslims themselves, and we can't be certain that fine distinctions between "radical" and "not radical" Islam will translate well. But there's no real need to be sucked into this digressive debate. Simply point out that while Republicans are fussing over words, Democrats are ready and already doing the hard work of fighting terrorism.

Obama hasn't stomped out ISIS, and that gives Republicans an opportunity to take potshots, of course. But again, this can be used to underline the maturity difference. Only children think that a complex problem like ISIS can be taken care of with some lip-pursing belligerence. Adults understand that it's hard, often thankless work, that can take years and can only be accomplished by being willing to embrace the complexity.

This "clash of civilizations" talk feeds right into ISIS hands. ISIS is an apocalyptic religious cult at heart, and they crave war, which is almost surely why they attacked Paris in the first place. Every single time, therefore, a Republican uses chest-thumping language, the Democrats should accuse them of giving ISIS what they want. No need for soundbite-unfriendly digressions about geopolitical complexities. Just point out that if we embrace this "clash of civilizations" framework, ISIS has already won. Rubio, Bush, etc. are just fools who are playing right into their hands.

Some kind of military response may be necessary, but even so, it's likely not going to fit into the 20th century conceptions of war that Republicans are promoting. Republicans are out of touch---hell, they don't even seem to know the difference between the bad guys and good guys in Syria!---and Democrats should be unafraid to say so at every turn.

One thing is absolutely clear in the aftermath of the Paris attacks: The stakes are way too high now to let a Republican win the White House. We can't afford an all-out war. All-out war is what ISIS wants, as it helps them build recruitment propaganda around the claim that the West is out to get Muslims. But despite the utter failure of the Iraq War, Republicans still refuse to give up their enthusiasm for old-fashioned war strategies that don't make sense when facing 21st century threats like ISIS.

Democrats are in an unenviable situation of trying to communicate about a complex situation in a media environment that abhors complexity. But the Republican behavior---immature posturing, demanding war without considering any of the complexities, completely misreading this situation as a "clash of civilizations", giving ISIS exactly what they want---creates an opportunity for Democrats. We live in serious times and need serious people in office. Democrats should not hesitate to say so, in exactly those terms.

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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Election 2016 Hillary Clinton Iraq War Isis Jeb Bush Marco Rubio Paris Attacks