In Las Vegas, GOP Ditches John Adams for Jack Bauer

Senator Ted Cruz speaks against pending immigration legislation during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol on June 20, 2013. Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

The day of the Republican debate in Las Vegas, the public schools in Los Angeles had been closed because of what authorities there described as a terror threat. By evening, it had become close to obvious that the threat was a hoax, but New Jersey Governor Chris Christie brought it up anyway, as an example of how little the Obama administration had done to beat back ISIS and its fanatical adherents. "The most basic responsibility of an administration is to protect the safety and security of the American people," he thundered at the debate's opening.

The debate was broadly focused on national security but thanks to CNN's fixation on terrorism, there were no questions about climate change, China's power moves or pretty much any other potential threats. The Republicans weren't complaining about that narrow focus. Again and again, they said that Obama and his erstwhile Secretary of State and likely Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, had abrogated their responsibility to the American people, apparently because they feared offending the Muslim world.

"We need a president who understands the first obligation of the commander-in-chief is to keep America safe," said Texas Senator Ted Cruz a little later, with a Texas twang in his Princeton-trained voice.

"We need a president and a cabinet who understands that the first and most important priority of the president of the United States is to protect the safety and security of Americans," said neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who days ago appeared to confuse the terror group Hamas with the chickpea paste known as hummus.

The generally moderate Ohio Governor John Kasich chimed in on this point, too: "You know, obviously, as president of the United States, we've got to keep the people safe. That's first and foremost." He noted that a potential ISIS sympathizer had been recently arrested in Akron, then veered into a confusing point about Central American minors who had come across the U.S. border in large numbers last year as they fled drug cartel violence.

The appeals to safety are clearly meant to soothe an electorate that has watched both Paris and San Bernardino come under attack from ISIS. September 11 attacked the nodes of power and, while terrifying, was also distant to those outside the urban centers of the East Coast. A group willing to strike San Bernardino, however, is willing to strike anywhere.

Yet if one of these candidates takes the presidential oath on January 20, 2017, he or she will discover that its words do not charge him keeping the American people safe. They mandate that the president "preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States." The fealty is to the laws that govern the United States, not to an ironclad notion of security that decrees that we will keep the country free of terrorist attacks at whatever cost.

Of course, the president's duties are not strictly circumscribed by that oath, which nobody thinks is a job description. And, just as obviously, keeping the citizenry safe is implicit in the social contract we make with our elected officials. Nevertheless, we are a "government of laws and not of men." Those are the words of John Adams, one of the Founding Fathers so beloved by the Republican Party. Besides, a president whose foremost concern is the safety of all Americans would probably want to close the freeways, shutter coal-burning plants and provide universal health care. Also, ban smoking and sugary drinks and mandate that every American exercise for 30 minutes on a daily basis. Millions of lives would be saved, though we'd then be living in the "nanny state" the right so loves to deride.

It's become a primary worthy of 24's Jack Bauer or Homeland's Carrie Mathison, with the Republicans promising to keep the country safe by booting ISIS off the Internet (Trump), making the sands of the Middle East "glow"(Cruz) and punching "the Russians in the nose" (Kasich). Consistency is beside the point. It matters little that this is the very same party that accuses Obama of a contempt for law and executive overreach whenever his administration proposes immigration reform or tougher environmental restrictions. Last spring, for example, Ted Cruz released a report that "cited 76 instances where he thinks the administration has overstepped its Constitutional authority," according to the Houston Chronicle. The law has become a convenient cudgel.

But in their paternalistic promises to protect Americans, the Republicans have shown disdain for the law they say they will uphold. At the debate in Las Vegas, Trump appeared to want to torture the families of terrorists (he has also suggested the families of terrorists should be killed), while Cruz wanted to use "overwhelming airpower" against ISIS, voicing support for saturation bombing. He said he only wanted to bomb soldiers, not cities. But, of course, ISIS is in the cities. Olivia Nuzzi of the Daily Beast noted that both of these would be war crimes. "The GOP debate wasn't exactly a banner night for the Geneva Conventions—or the Bill of Rights," the headline of her article said.

Rand Paul was the only candidate onstage to point out that we can't simply bomb whom we want, where we want, and expect no consequences. His moment came after Christie said that he would shoot down Russian airplanes venturing into a no-fly-zone over Syria; that Obama would presumably not do so, Christie opined, made him a "feckless weakling." Paul answered quickly, and devastatingly: "I think if you're in favor of World War III, you have your candidate." Paul may be the only Republican candidate who understands that the United States can't always be that lone good guy with a gun.

The image of an Obama, with his Nobel Peace Prize, pandering to "liberal elites" who wallpaper their Upper West Side apartments with the text of the Geneva Conventions, is a convenient one in the GOP primary: It just has nothing to do with reality. Between his aggressive use of drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen and support of data collection by the National Security Agency, Obama has entered murky legal waters himself. And he has done so, potentially compromising his own legacy, to do the very thing the Republicans say he cannot and will not do: keep America safe.

Perhaps the most curious aspect of the Republican attacks on Obama's national security record is that their ideas are fairly similar to his, at least when it comes to ISIS: allies and airstrikes. Nobody wants ground troops, a third war in the Middle East. In an interview with NPR, Cruz presented a plan against ISIS that, host Steve Inskeep quickly noted, would "end up with the air campaign they already have." Appearing on CBS This Morning in the wake of the debate, Christie was asked about his plans for the removal of Syrian despot Bashar Assad. His answer was that any action would be "the product of talks between our NATO allies with us and our Arab in the coalition." It was a revealing statement, one that sounded like it could have come from Obama's own mouth.