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.