Even President Barack Obama's harshest critics ought to give him credit for the candor he displayed in his Sunday night address to the nation, an Oval Office speech that laid out the threat posed by the Islamic State and its evolving tactics in the wake of the San Bernardino attack. He even used all the words that his detractors claim he won't like "radicalization," "act of terrorism," "thugs" and "Islam" in his description of ISIS as a "cult of death" that has vastly expanded its reach.
What he didn't offer — no doubt to the disappointment of many in his own political party — was some promise of a new and improved strategy for combating terrorist organizations that the U.S. is already attacking on multiple fronts and in complex ways from air strikes to intelligence gathering to coalition-building to mass surveillance to training and equipping Syrians and Iraqis. In this, the president violated the basic rule of marketing: People always go for the new and improved version of whatever you're selling.
Yet from the reaction of Republicans in Congress and running for the nation's highest office, one would think Mr. Obama offered nothing and that the threat posed by ISIS could be addressed if the U.S. would simply take stronger action. Exactly what constitutes that "stronger" action is seldom addressed but often implied — dropping more bombs and sending more American troops into combat in more places, the same invade first and ask questions later mentality that has helped promote the cause of terrorists groups with their radical interpretation of Islam.
So what exactly are people like Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz saying about Mr. Obama's efforts to calm the nation and rally support for his government's efforts to fight the Islamic State? They are doing the usual name-calling and chest-thumping that has characterized the party's hawkish reactions to terrorism that so often plays into the terrorists' hands. Senator Cruz issued a statement indicating, if elected, he would "direct the Department of Defense to destroy ISIS" but offering not a clue as to what that would require. Ohio Gov. John Kasich said there was a need to "decisively and aggressively protection our nation" (as if that hadn't occurred to anyone previously) and Donald Trump simply live-tweeted during the speech, "Is that all there is?"
Oh, and the candidates also strenuously attacked two specific points Mr. Obama made Sunday that for ordinary Americans might be seen as no-brainers — that selling guns to people on the no-fly list ought to be banned and that Americans should not blindly attack people on religious grounds, reminding viewers that ISIS represents a tiny minority of Muslims.
"Where is the evidence we have widespread discrimination against Muslims?" Senator Rubio said during a television interview. Perhaps he might start by observing what happens at most GOP candidate rallies when the subject of Islam is broached. When Attorney General Loretta Lynch recently suggested that Islamic hate-speech that "edges toward violence" ought to be investigated (as threats against Christians or anyone else routinely are), she received a torrent of criticism from the same quarter.
As for guns, why does anyone defend selling firearms to individuals who are under scrutiny as potential terrorists? That some modest number of people end up on the no-fly list wrongly or accidentally is unfortunate but hardly grounds to supply arms to possible terrorists. Do you think a domestic terrorist "inspired" by ISIS wouldn't walk into a gunshop? At least 2,000 people on the no-fly list have purchased guns in that manner over the past decade, according to the FBI. How people judged too dangerous to get on a plane can buy a firearm is just another indicator of this nation's bizarre politics. Yet Republicans running for president are actually defending that absurdity. "Disarming more law-abiding citizens will not stop mass murderers and terrorists," Sen. Rand Paul said after Mr. Obama's speech.
This is not to suggest that Mr. Obama has all the answers in fighting ISIS and the terrorist threat. There's certainly room for a grown-up discussion about such difficult issues as Syria's Bashar al-Assad or the proper level of U.S. military support in Iraq. But in this political year, we're not getting much of a nuanced debate, particularly from those Republicans who are tossing out failed ideas like internment camps and a return to water-boarding. The country needed a bit of reassurance from its top elected leader this week along with an explanation of current U.S. strategy against ISIS. That the opposition party's leading candidates for president can't offer a rational, thoughtful alternative view of the same issue is disappointing if unsurprising.