MOUNT PLEASANT, S.C—If it’s the South Carolina Republican primary, it’s time to talk about the military, which is why Ted Cruz was on the USS Yorktown Tuesday, campaigning with Rick Perry and laying out his plans.
The Palmetto State has a high proportion of veterans and military families, especially compared to other states, making it a natural place to talk defense. During a rally on Tuesday, for example, Jeb Bush emphasized military readiness and reforming the Department of Veterans Affairs. But for Cruz, the issue is more pressing, because he’s already facing attacks for some of his votes on national security.
And so on Tuesday, Cruz laid out his plan for the military—a massive program of spending, expansion, and innovation, leavened with a healthy dose of Obama-bashing and promises to subordinate civilian bureaucrats to military leaders. It was a plan that seemed aimed at guaranteeing that no one could call Cruz soft of defense, and that would prevent any rival from outflanking him on the right. Whether Cruz’s plan is fiscally reasonable or proportional to threats to the U.S., however, is a different question.
“For the past seven years, our nation has had a commander in chief who questions the value of American strength and denies our exceptional history,” Cruz said. “Instead he eagerly negotiates with terrorists and makes concessions to our enemies.”
Cruz promised to reverse Obama’s policies. He vowed not to constrain the military with political correctness, said he wouldn’t force women to register for selective service, and promised to grant the Marines an exemption from putting women into combat positions. (There was also a somewhat peculiar complaint about “gluten-free MREs.”) Cruz got the biggest applause when, in reference to the detention of American sailors in Iran, he said, “Starting next year, our sailors won’t be on their knees with their hands on their heads.”
But the heart of the plan was the promise of more, bigger, and better. He deplored Obama-era reductions in force, but didn’t simply call for their reversal. “We can’t just pour vast sums back into the Pentagon,” Cruz said. “We need to make generational investments in our defenses that will keep not only us but our children and grandchildren safe.”
Cruz said he would cancel President Obama’s plan to shrink the Army to 450,000 by 2018, and he said the nation needs a minimum force of 525,000 soldiers. He promised to increase the Navy from its current 273 ships to 350, the largest fleet in recent memory. He wants 12 new ballistic-missile submarines. He wants to increase the Air Force by nearly 20 percent, from around 5,000 planes now to 6,000. Mentioning the increasing centrality of drones to American military operations, he said the force of drone pilots needs to grow. He vowed to expand missile-defense systems, improve cyberwar defenses, and protect American assets in space.
In short, Cruz wants to spend a tremendous amount of money.
Cruz didn’t put a price tag on his plan, though he acknowledged it would not be cheap. He offered a variety of partial answers to the money question. “If you think it’s too expensive to defend this nation, try not defending it,” he said. He promised to audit the Pentagon and root out waste, fraud, and abuse, an idea with bipartisan appeal. (He claimed the Department of Defense has 12,000 accountants.) And he trumpeted his plan to cut $500 billion in federal spending over a decade.
But the much-derided F-35 program—which Cruz did not mention on Tuesday—has already cost an estimated $1.5 trillion, as James Fallows has reported. How could Cruz possibly make his plan feasible? For that, there was some handwaving and some posturing.
“We can look to President Reagan as an example,” Cruz said. “He began with tax reform and regulatory reform that unleashed the engine of free enterprise. His policies brought booming economic growth, and that growth fueled building the military. That growth first bankrupted and then defeated the Soviet Union.”
There are a couple problems with that analogy. For one thing, Reagan’s military approach wasn’t especially fiscally conservative: He tripled the national deficit during his tenure. For another, the threat that the U.S. faces now is very different from the threat that Reagan faced. The Soviet Union was a huge, clunky behemoth that required massive spending. Cruz is not unaware of the threat of ISIS and other radical Islamist groups. He talked about them at length, and some of the most sustained applause came when he promised not to accept refugees who might have been “infiltrated” by ISIS. But it’s not clear how the Reagan plan would apply. Although ISIS has found itself cutting salaries as the price of oil plunges, it doesn’t appear that cash flow is the group’s main problem. Wouldn’t the U.S. end up bankrupt long before ISIS went broke?
Cruz’s plan for defeating ISIS has come in for criticism before. He has repeatedly demanded that the U.S. “carpet bomb” the group, a tactic military experts say makes no sense at all. On Tuesday, he said he would attack the group with overwhelming air power, by empowering Kurdish fighters, and by encouraging the Israeli and Jordanian militaries.
The magnitude of Cruz’s spending plan for the military is particularly striking because he has voted to slow defense spending in the Senate, but also because he is one of the less hawkish of the Republican candidates for president. Sure, he talks about how he would never apologize to Iran, but Cruz has tended to oppose intervention. He’s working to thread a needle: both appealing to voters who are upset about costly and unsuccessful interventions during the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, and also resisting attacks from more bellicose rivals like Marco Rubio, who have sought to label Cruz an isolationist.
On Tuesday, Cruz said that the “Obama-Clinton foreign policy” had shown the danger of what happens when the U.S. withdraws from the world, citing a wide range of different attacks as evidence of the danger of isolationism: Major Nidal Hassan’s shooting rampage at Fort Hood; the Sony hack; and the San Bernardino attacks. Yet he also blasted the American involvement in Libya as foolish and irresponsible. For Cruz, the answer is to project strength.
“We will not go picking fights around the globe,” he said. “The purpose of this rebuilt military is not to engage in every conflict, or to participate in expensive and time-consuming acts of nation building.”
Will Cruz’s message of spending huge sums to project strength and avoid conflict sway Republican voters? Cruz is second in RealClearPolitics’ average of the race, but he lags far behind the frontrunner. (The 200 people in attendance also lagged behind Trump’s own huge December rally on the Yorktown.) A poll released Monday found Cruz with a negative favorability rating. Even among enthusiastic Cruz backers on board the Yorktown, there was some wariness about his chances on Saturday.
“There is a mystifying level of support for Trump,” worried Bob Armstrong, who was sporting a red, white, and blue Cruz jersey ( number 45, for the prospective 45th president ). “I haven’t met any Trump supporters!” Just a couple rows away, Joseph Laudati told me was deciding between Trump and Cruz, though: “I like the outsiders.” He had once been a hardcore Trump backer, but he was starting to be turned off by the frontrunner’s rhetoric. Cruz will need to peel off a lot more people like him to get a win on Saturday.