Candidates ratchet up rhetoric over Belgium, but is it empty talk?

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In the wake of the Belgium attacks, there seems to be an awful lot of political posturing going on.

Everyone is talking tough, which happens after every terror attack. The Belgian bombs exploded in the middle of the presidential campaign, bringing the focus back to a life-and-death subject that had faded after Paris and San Bernardino, given the media’s notoriously short attention span.

But for all the finger-pointing and understandable outrage after more than 30 people were murdered, are the candidates proposing realistic action?

Of all the White House contenders, only Lindsey Graham proposed sending 20,000 troops to fight ISIS—and his candidacy went nowhere. There is little public support, after a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, for lots of boots on the ground in another Mideast country.

Remember when President Obama, more than a year ago, asked Congress for authorization to use military force against the terror group? Hill leaders never even scheduled a debate on the request.

When terror is at the top of the media radar, Donald Trump tends to benefit. Whether you think he has the policy acumen to back it up or not, he has been saying for many months that we should bomb the S out of ISIS and seize its oil—conveying a message of strength.

Trump also uses the threat of terror to justify his controversial proposal to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the country—a plan the pundits thought would sink his candidacy, but which has been embraced by many Republican voters.

Trump immediately renewed his call for waterboarding and other coercive techniques—despite a long-running debate over whether these forms of torture actually extract useful information. And Trump is also taking heat for his suggestion a day earlier that the U.S. should reduce its role in NATO.

Ted Cruz made the morning show rounds yesterday defending his statement that “we need to empower law enforcement to patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods before they become radicalized.” He set off fireworks by praising a New York police surveillance program under Michael Bloomberg that targeted Muslims.

Police Commissioner Bill Bratton told “CBS This Morning” that the senator “doesn’t know what the hell he is talking about.”

Hillary Clinton gave a speech in California yesterday, speaking in sober tones about counterterrorism. Clinton said we should “take a harder look at security protocols and airports and other so-called soft sites,” “more effectively track and analyze ISIS’ social media posts” and create a “national commission on encryption.”

Whatever their merits, none of these ideas sounds dramatic. And Clinton has the liability of Libya, Syria and other less than successful outcomes during her Obama administration tenure.

She also took a whack at Cruz for his Muslim surveillance plan, saying “that doesn’t make you sound tough, it makes you sound like you’re in over your head.” In a clear allusion to Trump, she said that “loose cannons tend to misfire.”

And then there is the president of the United States. I’m not in the camp that says he has to interrupt his travels every time a bomb goes off somewhere in the world, although the optics of attending the baseball game in Cuba were not good. But Obama’s 50-second remarks after the attacks, before pivoting back to his prepared speech, seemed as tone-deaf as his admittedly restrained and tepid comments after the Paris massacre.

Obama said yesterday in Argentina that “my top priority is to defeat ISIL and to eliminate the scourge of this barbaric terrorism that's been taking place around the world,” but that “the issue is how do we do it in an intelligent way.”

While administration officials point to various combat successes against ISIS, the fact is that distressingly little progress is being made overall. Obama, who ran against the Iraq war, does not want to escalate this asymmetrical war in a significant way.

Plenty of network anchors and correspondents have gone to Brussels in pursuit of this story. The bloodshed overshadowed the split decisions for Trump and Cruz in Arizona and Utah, and for Clinton and Bernie Sanders in those states and Idaho.

The question is how long the media will stay on the terror beat.

Hey, did you see what Trump said about Cruz’s wife after a group posted an image from a nude photo shoot of Trump’s wife?

That’s how our news cycle works.