Tough Talk vs. Military Muscle

Cruz and Rubio duke it out over how to deal with ISIS.

FILE - In this Nov. 13, 2015, file photo, Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, addresses the Sunshine Summit in Orlando, Fla. Cruz and Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio, R- Fla., will appear Friday, Nov. 20, with a group of candidates at a forum hosted by the Family Leader, a prominent Iowa Christian organization. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

In a debate that became something of a referendum on former President George W. Bush’s interventionist foreign policy, the highest-profile combatants were two freshman senators:  Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.  Rubio, in line with Bush’s legacy, called for a more robust American role in the Middle East and aggressive counterterrorism measures at home.  Cruz, despite employing fiery rhetoric, advocated a more limited American role overseas while defending his vote for legislation that curtailed the government’s bulk collection of metadata.

The big question after last night’s debate: Will the public’s mood in the wake of the Paris and San Bernardino attacks translate into an increased appetite for military intervention?  Or will criticizing President Obama and sounding tough on terror be enough to satisfy a conservative GOP electorate clamoring for the utter defeat of ISIS?

If tone and bluster are enough to satisfy the base, Cruz will have emerged from this debate in strong shape. But if the Republican party is still a hawkish party in deed – as the latest round of polls suggest – there were clear signs that Cruz’s record is riddled with vulnerabilities that Rubio is well-equipped to exploit.

Cruz said he was content to depend on punishing airpower to take out ISIS, while Rubio insisted that ground troops would be necessary to win the war. At one point, Cruz paused and offered a death stare to prove that he was gutsy enough to take on the ISIS “bad guys.” Instead of defending his vote against the National Defense Authorization Act funding the military, Cruz dodged the subject and called Rubio’s criticism “Alinsky-like attacks.”  These are crucial national security issues where he and Rubio disagree – and Cruz found more in common with Sen. Rand Paul, whose own standing collapsed when his non-interventionist approach lost favor with the GOP electorate.

A close reading of the polls suggests Cruz is vulnerable on this front. A whopping 58 percent of Republicans now say that terrorism is their top concern, 46 points more than the economy or jobs, according to this week’s NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. In the survey, 55 percent of voters put security ahead of privacy. And a 42 percent plurality of voters favors a combination of ground forces and air strikes, six points more than the number who favor only air strikes.   Among Republicans, the gap is even greater.

"I promise you the next time there is an attack on this country, the first thing people are going to want to know is: 'Why didn't we know about it and why didn't we stop it?'" Rubio said, outlining a theme that will surely be repeated in the weeks to come.

Cruz, for his part, has been preparing for this foreign policy showdown.  In a  speech last week at the Heritage Foundation, he attempted to forge a “third way” approach to foreign policy. He slammed Bush’s efforts to promote democracy around the world, while emphasizing that he’s more serious about Islamic terrorism than the Obama administration.  Last night, he cited Rubio’s support for ousting Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi as an example of the senator’s poor judgment.  In a recent interview with Bloomberg, he dismissed Rubio’s foreign policy as “military adventurism” and tried to tie him to the “aggressive neocons” within the Republican party.

Cruz’s bet is that Republicans are weary of the foreign policies of both Bush and Obama, and that his more measured approach is in line with the GOP mood.  Rubio, meanwhile, is offering a return to the more-muscular national security policies of the Bush administration – although he takes care not to mention the former president by name.

It’s awfully ironic that at a time when Republican voters have grown nostalgic for the Bush administration’s “war on terror,” it’s Rubio and not the former president’s brother who’s capitalizing on the party’s mood.  And it’s another Texan who’s pushing for a more restrained foreign policy – a position that was once embraced by George W. Bush, but abandoned in the wake of the 9/11 attacks that reshaped his party for good.