So, what did we learn from the final GOP debate of the year?
All of those on the podium for the main event had a plan to shut down ISIS. Just how practical these are is questionable, with most a long way from current thinking. Donald Trump, for example, announced he wants to shut down the internet in ISIS-controlled Syria and Iraq. As this CNET story explains, at a technical level this would be near impossible:
Even if US soldiers took out on-the-ground infrastructure like towers and computers, there'd still be those pesky satellites orbiting the planet and beaming down information. Regardless of the technical hurdles, experts say it's also just a terrible idea. Preventing entire populations from getting access to basic information would be a human-rights catastrophe, particularly for areas of the world that are already war-torn,' said Thomas Ristenpart, a computer science professor at Cornell Tech.
Ted Cruz, the Senator from Texas that many polls have in the lead in Iowa, thinks bombs are the answer. Lots of bombs. When asked if he would carpet bomb Raqqa, the ISIS Capital, Cruz answered:
You would carpet bomb where ISIS is, not a city, but the location of the troops, you use air power directed, and you have embedded special forces to direct the air power. But the object isn't to level a city, the object is to kill the ISIS terrorists...
Paul Waldman from The Week described Cruz's oft repeated carpet bombing plan as 'disastrously inhumane'.
The American military doesn't lack for ordnance; we could level those cities if we wanted. But doing so would mean thousands and thousands of civilian casualties, killing the very people we'd be claiming to want to save. That's not only morally abhorrent, it would be extremely likely to produce the kind of hatred towards America that helped Al Qaeda thrive, helped ISIS replace Al Qaeda, and would help the next terrorist group take ISIS's place.
However this didn't stop Cruz from scoring big, with many ruling he gave the strongest performance in the debate. And as for his ISIS plan, well the well publicised Frank Luntz focus group loved it.
Possibly the most tangled policy position set out on the night came from Ben Carson, who back in October looked to be giving Trump a run for his money but has since drifted back in the polls. Foreign policy is not the strong suit of this retired neurosurgeon and political neophyte who had this to say about North Korea, Putin and energy exports:
I do believe he [North Korean leader Kim Jong Un] is unstable and China has more influence with him than we do. But we also recognize that North Korea is in severe financial straits and they have decided to use their resources to build their military than to feed their people and take care of the humanitarian responsibilities that they have.
We can capitalize on that. We can use that to keep Putin contained. He is a one horse show, energy. And we have an abundance of energy but we have archaic energy export rules. We need to get rid of those and make Europe dependent on us for energy, put him back in his little box where he belongs. And we need to do a lot of other things with the resources that we have. So that economic power works just as well as military power, perhaps better.
The military needs to be upgraded. You look at the Ohio glass submarines, the minuteman 3 missiles, the B-52 bombers, you know, if we don't get the military right nothing else matters.
If you find that difficult to understand, you are not alone. As Zack Beauchamp noted on Vox:
Two weeks ago, Carson foreign policy adviser Duane Clarridge told the New York Times that "nobody has been able to sit down with him and have him get one iota of intelligent information about the Middle East." It doesn't seem like the Asia prep sessions went any better.
So who won the debate? Opinion was mixed. In this clip, six different editors from The Street give six different verdicts. What is clear is this presidential race is a crowd pleaser. CNN reported 18 million tuned into this week's debate. That's not as many as the 25 million who tuned into the first GOP debate in August, and the 24 million who watched the second in September but, compared to primary debates in other years, it's huge, with CNN declaring 'the 2015 debates have obliterated all prior ratings...'
So perhaps it is not surprising popular culture has melded with politics in many ways, including this video from Ted Cruz supporters that plays on the newly released Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It's a strangely compelling creation; a fitting match for the GOP contest so far.
Editor's note: the video in this post has been changed since post first appeared