The first debate of the 2016 Republican presidential primaries is in the books. Only the lower tier of candidates participated in this undercard event, so it’s just a partial glimpse of the campaign ahead. But already we have some early signs of who will be the scapegoats in this election.
1. Muslims. This one’s easy. We’re at war with ISIS, we’ve had several domestic jihadist attacks, and Republicans hate the deal with Iran. Also, American Muslims don’t yet have enough political power to fight back. So it’s a free-fire zone. Thursday night’s assault opened with Gov. Bobby Jindal castigating President Obama for daring to “criticize medieval Christians” while refusing “to say that Islam has a problem.”
Shortly afterward, George Pataki was asked whether conservatives’ stated concern for “religious liberty” should extend to Muslims. The question was: “Would you put mosques, for example, potentially, under surveillance?” Pataki replied that “religious liberty doesn't include encouraging a fellow American to engage in violent jihad.” He said people who “radicalize other Americans” must be “shut down, whether or not they’re in prisons preaching, or in mosques preaching.” He also pledged to “shut down their Internet capability.” The limits of these pledges, in terms of the content of the speech being targeted, were left unclear.
The Muslim issue returned out of nowhere a few minutes later, when Sen. Lindsey Graham, answering a question about public assistance, turned the conversation to ISIS and then abruptly exclaimed: “If I have to monitor a mosque, I'll monitor a mosque.” When candidates are reaching for your group to score points on totally unrelated questions, that’s a pretty strong indicator that you’re in for a long, rough ride.
2. Immigrants. Three months ago I flagged Rick Santorum for pushing the immigration debate into new territory. Other candidates were complaining about illegal immigrants, but Santorum was forthrightly denouncing legal immigration as a flood of foreigners taking American jobs. Thursday night’s debate, in conjunction with other recent comments by the candidates, suggests that the rest of the GOP field may be following Santorum’s lead.
In recent forums there’s been more talk from other Republicans about reining in legal immigration. Thursday, Santorum tried to reassert his status as the trailblazer on this issue. He pointed to the support Donald Trump has won from activists and in polls by targeting immigration. Of Democrats, Santorum said: “All they care about is votes. They don’t care about American workers. They just care about bringing as many people in so they can get as many votes as they can.” Illegal immigrants can’t vote, so when Santorum complains about immigrants voting for Democrats, it sounds like he’s talking about people who are here legally. He continued: “I’m the only one on this stage who has a plan that’s actually going to reduce immigration, actually going to do something to help the American worker.” Santorum didn’t say “reduce illegal immigration.” He said “reduce immigration.”
But immigration, as an issue in the GOP primaries, isn’t just about economics. It’s also about culture. Jindal made that clear in his closing statement. “We must insist on assimilation,” said Jindal. “Immigration without assimilation is an invasion. We need to tell folks who want to come here: They need to come here legally, they need to learn English, adopt our values, roll up their sleeves, and get to work.” This wasn’t in response to a question, mind you. This was the issue Jindal elected to close on. And he wasn’t talking about securing a border. He was talking about a cultural “invasion.”
When the candidates were asked about families who would be broken apart by deportation or other efforts to purge illegal immigrants, they had no answers. Santorum changed the subject to “unskilled workers” who were immigrating legally and “flattening wages.” Rick Perry also ducked the question and talked instead about his favorite subject: securing the border.
3. Planned Parenthood. Abortion is a favorite issue in Republican primaries, especially when you’re trying to knock off a candidate who seems squishier than you. Carly Fiorina was the first candidate Thursday night—but probably won’t be the last, by the time the second debate has concluded—to use the issue against Trump. She tartly remarked: “Since he has changed his mind on amnesty, on health care, and on abortion, I would just ask: What are the principles by which he will govern?”
The tricky aspect of this issue is standing up for babies without looking as though you’re targeting women. Planned Parenthood seems to solve that problem. The recently released videos of Planned Parenthood officials chatting coolly about late-term abortions and procuring fetal body parts have given Republicans a fat target for their anti-abortion message. The videos focus the debate on late-term abortions, and they put a large, government-funded organization—not individual women—in the rhetorical crosshairs.
The candidates seem to have learned from Jeb Bush, who got himself in trouble earlier this week by suggesting that too much money was being spent on women’s health care. Thursday, Graham made clear that any government money not spent on Planned Parenthood should stay with women: “I don’t think it’s a war on women for all of us as Americans to stand up and stop harvesting organs from little babies. Let’s take the money that we would give to Planned Parenthood and put it in women’s health care without having to harvest the organs of the unborn.”
But there’s a catch. Planned Parenthood does a lot more than abortions. It provides contraception, pregnancy tests, exams for sexually transmitted infections, and many other reproductive health services. So when Republicans go after it, they risk wandering into territory that could provoke a backlash. Jindal, for instance, said in his closing statement:
Under President Jindal, January 2017, the Department of Justice and the IRS and everybody else that we can send from the federal government will be going in to Planned Parenthood. This is absolutely disgusting and revolts the conscience of the nation. Absolutely we need to defund Planned Parenthood. In my own state, for example, we launched an investigation, asked the FBI to cooperate. We just earlier this week kicked them out of Medicaid in Louisiana as well, canceled their provider contract. They don’t provide any abortions in Louisiana.
When Jindal says Planned Parenthood doesn’t provide any abortions in Louisiana, that’s not because of Jindal’s order. It was true before he acted. As the Wall Street Journal notes, Jindal “announced his state will end its Medicaid contract with the nonprofit, even though Planned Parenthood doesn’t provide abortions in the state.”
So watch out, Republicans. Scapegoats aren’t safe targets forever. One of these days, you might discover you’re in a country with too many Muslims, Hispanics, or women who like having accessible, affordable health exams. If you’re not careful, that day will arrive next year.