ORLANDO -- The carnage in France on Friday immediately reverberated through the 2016 presidential race, sending campaigns scrambling to explain how they would react to a critical commander-in-chief test: the ‘3 a.m. call.”
For Hillary Clinton, there’s never been a better - or riskier - time to show how she’d answer.
About 24 hours after the terrorist attacks rocked Paris, Clinton, Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley will take to the stage in Iowa for a debate that was retooled at the last minute in order to focus on terrorism and foreign policy.
The attacks could be a moment of opportunity for Clinton, who has broad experience with national security as a former Secretary of State. But it could also present challenges as she is also associated with the current administration, which bears a measure of responsibility for the state of the Middle East today.
"It is a double-edged sword in that people who are in control during a certain time are judged on the events of that time period,” said Mieke Eoyang, VP for the national security program at Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank. “But the question is: do people want someone who is learning on the job, or someone who has already been through that?"
However, Kori Schake, a foreign policy adviser during George W. Bush’s administration,
predicted that the debate will also focus on the less than stellar parts of Clinton’s foreign policy record, like not having a real plan for Libya after Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown.
Beyond defeating ISIS, Clinton and her fellow Democratic contenders will also have to answer how this attack will affect the issue of Syrian refugees, who until yesterday, streamed across European borders and who the US had pledged to help as well.
Republicans, in particular, will likely link her with President Obama’s ill-timed comments that ISIS was “contained” just hours before the attacks in Paris began.
“What the Obama administration’s policy in the Middle East is based on is the idea that ISIS can be contained to the Middle East and we can just deal with the symptoms of the problem like the refugees instead of having to deal with the problem which is destroying ISIS, removing their hold on what they call a caliphate,” Schake said. “They thought that al Qaeda whose doctrine was to go after the far enemy instead of the near enemy – the governments in the region - they thought that ISIS would keep itself in the Middle East and they just showed that’s not true.”
Sanders, who has argued for less intervention in the Middle East and for letting other countries in the region handle the unrest might have a tougher time arguing his position, given the scope and the scale of the Paris attacks.
"Hillary is probably advantaged because people are going to more comfortable with her on national security than Sanders. It could hurt Hillary, but that would require Sanders to create a causal story [that links her policies to the attacks] that politicians have trouble making,” said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “The question is whether it will resonate."
For both political parties, the Paris crisis is a moment in the campaign where they have to demonstrate whether they have the character, experience and maturity to respond adequately in a moment of crisis and will force candidates to be more specific about how to address a complex threat in Iraq and Syria.
"The typical arguments of 'let's get tougher' won't work -- because these are not simple questions,” said Gartenstein-Ross. “So far the debate has been about: 'let's get more hawkish in Syria,' but that doesn't address the fundamental question: who do you get more hawkish with? Do you get more hawkish with Assad? Do you go after ISIS and maintain the view that Assad can stay? Do you go after them both of them simultaneously?"
In Florida, where Republicans contenders gathered for a cattle-call, the conversation quickly turned to massacre in the City of Light.
And some candidates rose to the occasion better than others. While native son Sen. Marco Rubio seized on the moment to declare the attacks evidence as a "clash of civilizations" with radical Islam, others stumbled with the topic.
On Friday evening, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson delivered a rambling answer to a question about whether troops should be sent to Syria that puzzled pretty much everybody outside of the Carson campaign. Carson, a leading GOP candidate, referred vaguely to using "things-they-don't-know-about resources" to combat terrorism.
And Sen. Rand Paul, who has been trying to differentiate himself in the field, responded to a question about what he would do as president during a similar attack by saying, “we stand with France,” but offered no actual answers. The crisis in Paris will no doubt do damage to Paul who, on Saturday, continued to press home his argument that defense spending should be lowered.
"One of the distinctions that I will continue to draw is that I don't think you can be a fiscal conservative if you're liberal with any kind of spending, even if that spending is for the military,” he told reporters.
The Paris attacks bring "into focus the importance of choosing a commander-in-chief who has the judgement, experience and the resolve to address this threat,” a Republican national security advisor on an opposing presidential campaign said. “Rand could not have picked a worse week to go full isolationist."
Republican foreign policy experts said that prior experience doesn’t matter as much as whether voters believe that a candidate had the ability to keep them safe if the time ever came.
Richard Grenell, a former UN spokesman and foreign policy adviser, agreed that traditional foreign policy experience isn’t key.
“The Paris attacks and the growth of ISIS remind us that we need a President willing to make a decision and build international support for that decision,” he said. “Waiting until we are guaranteed success means the 3 a.m. phone call keeps ringing until it's a more comfortable time to answer it. We need a President that will shake off the desire to keep naive political promises made in Iowa in order to keep us safe.”
“One of the things events like this do is show how people think in real time and so it revelatory of their judgement, I think the role that foreign policy plays in presidential elections, it’s sort of a gateway,” Schake said. “If people show they are good at this, then voters will move on to look at their economic policy and other stuff.”
She added, “If you don’t pass the commander in chief test, you can’t get to people paying attention to what you think about abortion or other things.”