Matt Evans: Navigating The 2016 Presidential Candidates


Traditionally, I am almost a single-issue voter.  I refer everyone to author L. Neil Smith’s excellent essay on gun rights, “Why Did it Have to Be.. Guns”

What a politician thinks about gun rights tells me what he thinks about me.

Obviously, if you care primarily about gun rights, the democratic candidates are not for you.

The Republican candidates are a mixed bag on gun rights.  Rand Paul is excellent.  Ben Carson – not so much.  I won’t discuss all of the Republicans here; other folks have done good work on that topic.

Donald Trump’s current website position statement on gun rights is outstanding, but it was only a few short years ago that Trump’s views on gun rights were straight out of the democrat playbook.

The general problem with Trump is nobody seems to really know what Trump is up to.

Of course, we know that he’ll be no worse than any of the democrats on gun rights, but, he may not turn out to be much better.

But I’m actually not writing about gun rights, and increasingly, I’m not thinking about the 2016 presidential election in terms of gun rights.

Here’s why.

[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]The general problem with Trump is nobody seems to really know what Trump is up to.[/mks_pullquote]

The President of the US can say whatever he likes about gun rights, but to actually make severe, damaging changes, he requires a cooperative congress and a cooperative supreme court.  President Obama, despite all of his rhetoric, hasn’t managed to meaningfully limit gun rights in the US.  In fact, under his administration, more Americans own guns than ever before, and many of those guns are AR-15s and other “evil black rifles”.  To be sure, Obama would like to ruin gun rights for most of us.  But in terms of what he’s actually accomplished, it has been primarily limited to stopping the importation of certain weapons.  That’s rotten of him, but it’s not unbearable.

Now then, it is true that the President gets to appoint Supreme Court justices, and the recent court cases that have upheld and even expanded gun rights have been narrow 5-4 decisions.  So the court is on our side – but just barely, and just for a while.  And it is also true that congress often swings in favor of the party of a new president.  So a democratic victory in 2016 wouldn’t be good for gun rights, but it doesn’t guarantee immediate catastrophe.

But more importantly, there’s a different issue that has me more concerned lately.

That issue is war.

In the next 20 years, all of my children will reach the age of draft eligibility.  In those 20 years, we’ll probably have between 3 and 5 presidents, and the first of them, who we’ll elect in 2016, is probably going to set the course for many years of future foreign relations.

Unlike domestic policy concerning gun rights, where the congress and the courts can be our ally, and help block and undermine a misbehaving president, on matters of foreign affairs, and especially foreign wars and military adventures, the President can essentially do as he likes.

People who remember civics class will note that it is not supposed to be this way; according to the US Constitution, only the congress can declare war.

But that’s not how it works any longer.  The US congress hasn’t declared a war since 1942.  The current legal “understanding” is that the president can start whatever he likes.  The president has, in effect, carte blanche to commit American lives to military action, anywhere, and for any reason he chooses.

I expect that the world of 2017, when the new president takes office, will be a dangerous place; certainly, no less dangerous than today.  The 2016 candidates – from both parties – are constantly getting asked what they are going to do about ISIS and Russia.  What really terrifies me is how cavalier these candidates are when discussing possible military actions they’d consider.

For instance, several candidates have said that they would shoot down Russian aircraft in the Middle East.

Forgive my language, but, who are these asses?!

Anyone who suggests that the US might want to start a shooting war with Russia should be escorted off the stage.  I give great credit to our former presidents – from both parties – that navigated us through the Cold War without letting it escalate into a nuclear holocaust.  I understand that there were proxy wars, and I understand that there were cold warrior casualties on all sides.

But somehow, they all managed to avoid starting WW3.

The thing that worries me most about the current candidates trying to talk tough about Russia and Putin is that they clearly have no idea what they are up against.  Putin used to be the head of the Soviet military intelligence agency.  Since turning politician, he’s moved all of his political opponents out of the way and managed to look clean doing all of it.  Despite being an authoritarian, his domestic popularity ratings are stunningly high – much higher than any American president.

[mks_pullquote align=”left” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]The thing that worries me most about the current candidates trying to talk tough about Russia and Putin is that they clearly have no idea what they are up against.[/mks_pullquote]

Putin does what he likes, and his people love him for it.  All of the attempts by the Obama administration to deal with Putin have been embarrassing.  Our current leadership (which includes Mrs. Clinton, by the way) is simply no match for Putin.  It’s not clear to me that any of the 2016 candidates are.

Luckily, I don’t think Putin is itching to fight the US.  Russia clearly wants a sphere of influence, and a buffer against a growing NATO.  Russia will act to protect and further its interests around the world.  But I don’t think that, fundamentally, Russia wants to start a war with the US if it doesn’t need to.

If it were just Putin making us look silly, that would be one thing.  But what’s the problem in the Middle East?  There is no evil super-genius at work there.  There is no massive economy that is funding a world-wide military empire.  We continue to look foolish in the Middle East, with no clear objective, no strategy, and no positive results.

No, our President’s chief result lately in the Middle East has been to create ISIS, and then to arm ISIS with our own weapons and money.  Rand Paul has wisely pointed out that we are shipping arms to the very people we claim to be fighting!

Is America safer?

No.  ISIS has now committed a massacre within our borders.   And predictably, despite years of disappointments, many of our 2016 candidates are talking about another ground war in the Middle East.

I do not want a war with Russia.

I do not want another ground war in the Middle East.

Finally, I do not want a war with China.

China, I fear, is a different matter entirely.

China is ambitious.  The size of the Chinese economy surpassed the US economy a few years ago.  China has more people than the US, Russia, and all of NATO combined.  China has a command economy that mixes state control with market efficiency, and isn’t impeded by consumer protection laws, an opposition party, or a free press.

China is busy expanding.  It is buying up raw materials around the world.  It is building a larger navy, 5th generation fighters, and a space program.  It has a magnetic train that runs at over 500km/h.  It poured more concrete in the last three years than the US did in the entire 20th century.

It also continues to rattle sabers at the US.  It is building artificial islands.  It is asserting itself as owner of disputed territories.  It is building airbases on those islands.  It is provoking military confrontations with Japan and Taiwan – both places that the US has military has agreed to defend.  China is specifically preparing for a confrontation with the US Navy in the South China Sea.

I certainly do not want to get into a war with China, and especially not on China’s terms.

So, when examining the 2016 presidential candidates, I’ve begun to ask myself, “Who is going to avoid starting needless wars, yet who is going to keep wars from coming to our shores?”

I’m not looking for a pacifist.  If America is seen as weak and vulnerable, we will invite attacks that we could otherwise avoid.  When we fight, it should be on terms that we have arranged to our advantage.

However, I’m also hoping to avoid a blood thirsty buffoon, who gets our children killed in needless conflicts.

So, we need a president who is firm enough that nobody wants to attack us, but restrained enough that we don’t attack anyone else needlessly.

I have no idea who that candidate is, yet I think it’s the most important consideration for 2016.

PS: Shortly, after I wrote this draft, Vladimir Putin weighed in on the race.  Putin said that Donald Trump was the clear front runner in the US Presidential race, and noted that, unlike other Republican candidates, Trump has said that he wants to improve relations with Russia, and that Russia would obviously welcome that.

I don’t know what to make of a world where foreign leaders tell us that Trump isn’t the most embarrassing guy we’re considering.  But that’s the world we’re in.