The most interesting mini-contest in the GOP presidential race this week is between Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who have been bashing each other with particular gusto on foreign policy.
Among other things, the contest may serve as a test of the GOP's support for maximally interventionist foreign policy.
Cruz targeted Rubio directly earlier this week, criticizing his support for military action against Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, and linking the Florida senator to Hillary Clinton in the process.
"Senator Rubio emphatically supported Hillary Clinton in toppling Qaddafi in Libya. I think that made no sense," Cruz said to Bloomberg Politics, as Brian Doherty noted earlier. "Qaddafi was a bad man, he had a horrible human rights record. And yet…he had become a significant ally in fighting radical Islamic terrorism."
Cruz insisted that the 2012 attack on an American diplomatic compound in Benghazi was a "direct result of that massive foreign policy blunder." (Sounds like Cruz has been reading Michael Brendan Dougherty.)
He also linked Rubio with Clinton on Syria, saying that "if the Obama administration and the Washington neo-cons succeed in toppling [Bashar al-] Assad, Syria will be handed over to radical Islamic terrorists. ISIS will rule Syria."
In a separate interview with the Associated Press, Cruz said that he opposed using torture when interrogating enemy combatants.
"We can defend our nation and be strong and uphold our values," Cruz said. "There is a reason the bad guys engage in torture. ISIS engages in torture. Iran engages in torture. America does not need to torture to protect ourselves."
That's another clear contrast with Rubio, who earlier this year declined to vote in support of an anti-torture measure—and by torture we're talking about interrogation techniques like rectal feeding and waterboarding—and said that had he been present, he would have voted no, because he doesn't "support telegraphing to the enemy what interrogation techniques we will or won't use" and doesn't want to restrict the options available to "future commanders in chief and intelligence officials." Basically, Rubio thinks it's important not to take any steps to deny a future president Rubio the opportunity to use incredibly brutal interrogation techniques.
Rubio, in turn, has recent gone after Cruz for supporting the USA Freedom Act, which limited the NSA's bulk data collection of individual electronic communication data—charging Cruz with voting "to weaken the U.S. intelligence programs."
As we barrel toward next year's primary votes, Rubio and Cruz look like the most plausible challengers to Donald Trump, who has held the frontrunner position since July.
What Cruz is attempting to do is draw a contrast between his foreign policy views and Rubio's unrelenting hawkishness without being tagged as an isolationist like Rand Paul.
Indeed, he's pitching himself as a sort of third-way option, somewhere between the two, saying that he doesn't believe in the "binary" choice between wanting to "retreat from the world and be isolationist" and believing we have to "be these crazy neo-con invade-every-country-on-earth and send our kids to die in the Middle East."
If you believe, as many do, that it is possible and even likely that we're heading quickly toward what is essentially a Cruz/Rubio contest, with Cruz playing the outsider and Rubio the insider, then this may serve as a preview of the GOP's final primary showdown next year.
And that contest could be close. It's probably a little too early to say whether Cruz's foreign policy strategy is working, but a new national poll this morning finds that he's rising in the field, and suggests he could pose a threat to both Rubio and Trump.
Cruz gained 3 points over the last month, according to a Quinnipiac University poll of Republican voters released this morning, and now holds 16 percent of the field, putting him in third place overall. Cruz is nearly tied with second-placer Rubio, who has the support of 17 percent of those polled. (Trump still leads with 27 percent, up a few points as well, while Carson has fallen 7 points and now lags in fourth place.) That poll is just the latest sign of a trend. The RealClearPolitics poll average also shows that as Ben Carson has fallen over the last few weeks, Cruz and Rubio have gained steam, and a nearly tied, with Rubio less than a point ahead.
What these rising poll numbers mean is that, at minimum, Cruz is going to be getting a lot of media attention over the next few weeks, and he appears to have decided to use this moment, and the platform it affords him, as an opportunity to stake out a foreign policy worldview that is not only in direct opposition to Marco Rubio's, but to the mainline GOP's more typical election-year posture of maximum hawkishness.
Which suggests that Cruz, who has been running a smart and focused campaign so far, believes that there are gains to be made from this strategy, and that at this point there are real limits to the GOP's tolerance for foreign policy chest thumping.
Obviously foreign policy isn't the only issue in play here (Cruz is also attacking Rubio on immigration), but it's a big one, and Cruz's success, or lack thereof, will be revealing. At this point, I don't know whether Cruz is right that Rubio's never-give-an-inch hawkishness is a weakness within his party, but I'm more than a little curious to find out. Because if he is, or if it even looks, in the end, like his foreign policy attacks have hurt Rubio a little, then that could undermine the conventional wisdom about the GOP and foreign policy for a long time to come, and open up other avenues and opportunities for less-than-maximally aggressive candidate in the future.