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San Bernardino Reveals What It Takes To Be President (Forbes.com) December 7, 2015

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds, Politics.

It is often said that crisis does not so much develop character as reveal it.  When the chips are down, where we turn and how we respond are clear indicators of who we are.  If that is true, there might be no better moment to sketch a profile of our president and the major candidates seeking to take his place by their responses to the tragedy and crisis in San Bernardino, California.

For some time now, President Obama has been effectively telling Americans that he wants to be their spiritual leader more than their commander in chief.  In his Oval Office speech Sunday night, Obama finally focused on a mission to “destroy ISIS,” not just “degrade” it, but he sought again to rally Americans not to make this into “a war between America and Islam.”  If the White House is a bully pulpit, Obama’s core message is “reject discrimination…and divisiveness.”  He argues that the latter is what ISIS wants, but it sure looks to most Americans that what they are pursuing is damage, death and destruction.  At a time when America wants a commander in chief and safety, he still prefers to preach his sermons on human relations.

By contrast, Donald Trump is clearly running to be commander in chief, but in his own vague, almost cartoonish way.  His response was “I would be so tough” that I cannot tell you exactly what I would do.  “We are going to get it stopped,” Trump concluded.  A commander in chief is what Americans want, in what is increasingly acknowledged as a new chapter in a war, but as usual Trump leaves the details to others or until a later time.  Perhaps he has someone writing up his position paper, as he has done on immigration, for example.  So on the surface, Trump looks good and strong, but you wonder whether he has the underlying ideas to be successful.

Hillary Clinton’s response portrays her as a thoughtful government bureaucrat.  She says we need to rally technology firms to deny the terrorists the “virtual territory” of social media and the Internet.  Like a lot of issues, Clinton’s response on this is to hang back behind the president, be cautious, but not offend.  Bernie Sanders says we need more gun control, even though California’s tougher laws on guns did nothing to stop this horrible incident.

Ben Carson is at once too cautious on the central issue, but too broad and general in connecting this to other things.  His basic response to San Bernardino is that this now proves that we really need to stop bringing in refugees.  It is as if Carson has only developed a few key themes and, if things come up along other lines, he falls back to what he knows.

The other leading Republicans all put on their commander in chief hats and talked about war, but with varying levels of specificity.  Ted Cruz wanted to make it clear that the nation is now “at war.”  Chris Christie wishes that Obama would quit wringing his hands because “we are in the midst of the next world war.”

The most detailed commander in chief response came from Marco Rubio who not only pointed out “this is a very dangerous world we live in,” referring specifically to “radical Islamic terrorism,” but challenged President Obama’s idea that Congress should stop people on the no-fly list from being able to purchase guns.  As Rubio rightly pointed out, that list was made for other purposes and includes lots of names in error and Americans who pose no danger at all to the homeland.  Calling out the President’s response strengthened Rubio’s own stance.

If I were a political cartoonist drawing up caricatures of our leaders in their responses to San Bernardino, I would sketch Obama the preacher, Clinton the bureaucrat, and Sanders the gun regulator.  Donald Trump would be General Patton, but without the battle plan, while the academic Dr. Carson decides to stop the blood flow, realizing we should have stopped it sooner.   Ted Cruz and Chris Christie would be saber-rattling commanders.  Marco Rubio would be a thoughtful commander in chief.

Of course it’s easy enough to say what you would do when, unlike President Obama, you are not on the spot.  But this is a great moment to picture the candidates in a clearer light.


To view the column at Forbes.com:


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