Ted Cruz Is Prepping a Foreign Policy-Focused Presidential Campaign

The junior senator from Texas thinks he has found a policy “sweet spot” to anchor a 2016 run.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, stands for a TV news interview on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, May 6, 2013. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
National Journal
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Tim Alberta
Sept. 28, 2014, 4:29 p.m.

Ted Cruz is run­ning for pres­id­ent. The only thing left for him to do is say so.

Ac­cord­ing to sources close to the Texas sen­at­or, Cruz could be pre­par­ing for an end-of-year an­nounce­ment and is now ded­ic­at­ing con­sid­er­able time and ef­fort to cul­tiv­at­ing a for­eign-policy found­a­tion that might help his can­did­acy stand out in what is guar­an­teed to be a crowded field.

“At this point it’s 90/10 he’s in,” one Cruz ad­viser said. “And hon­estly, 90 is low­balling it.”

The sen­at­or’s cho­reo­graphy since ar­riv­ing in Wash­ing­ton has long poin­ted to a pres­id­en­tial run. His of­fice me­tic­u­lously doc­u­ments the de­tails of his meet­ings and events to guard against op­pos­i­tion re­search. He has ag­gress­ively pur­sued vis­its to im­port­ant primary states, in­clud­ing Iowa, New Hamp­shire, and South Car­o­lina. Late last month Cruz hired three prom­in­ent con­sult­ants with ex­per­i­ence in na­tion­al cam­paigns and ex­tens­ive con­tacts in early nom­in­at­ing states. And he re­cently moved his chief of staff, Chip Roy, from his con­gres­sion­al of­fice to the cam­paign op­er­a­tion, send­ing the clearest sig­nal yet to al­lies in­side and out­side the Cap­it­ol that a bid for the White House is im­min­ent.

Cruz’s al­lies in the con­ser­vat­ive move­ment have long ob­sessed over the tim­ing of his de­cision. The sen­at­or told some sup­port­ers earli­er this year that he planned to de­cide by the end of 2014, lend­ing ad­ded grav­ity to every new hire and early-state vis­it.

But while those al­lies mon­it­or move­ment on the sur­face, per­haps more con­sequen­tial than any ad­di­tion to his staff or speech in Iowa is his craft­ing of a for­eign policy port­fo­lio de­signed to draw sharp con­trasts—not just against Demo­crat­ic op­pon­ents, but po­ten­tial GOP rivals as well.

In­deed, ever since he played an in­stru­ment­al role in last year’s gov­ern­ment shut­down, Cruz has nar­rowed his agenda to fo­cus on in­ter­na­tion­al af­fairs, both as an av­en­ue to raise his pro­file among GOP donors and to pivot away from his repu­ta­tion as a con­ser­vat­ive kami­kaze bent on wreak­ing hav­oc in­side the halls of Con­gress. It’s an ab­rupt evol­u­tion for someone who ran for Con­gress just two years ago on ab­ol­ish­ing Obama­care and ex­tin­guish­ing com­pre­hens­ive im­mig­ra­tion-re­form ef­forts.

But now, with the “en­tire world on fire,” as Cruz says, and the Re­pub­lic­an Party largely uni­fied on mat­ters of so­cial and fisc­al policy, the ju­ni­or sen­at­or has made the cal­cu­la­tion that glob­al tu­mult af­fords him the best op­por­tun­ity to stand apart from oth­er prob­able con­tenders, in par­tic­u­lar Rand Paul.

“I have been very clear that, in my view, the 2016 elec­tion is the most im­port­ant elec­tion of our life­times,” Cruz told Na­tion­al Journ­al in a lengthy in­ter­view in his Sen­ate of­fice. “Our na­tion teeters on the brink of a pre­cip­ice. And I be­lieve 2016 will be an elec­tion like 1980 about two fun­da­ment­ally dif­fer­ent vis­ions for Amer­ica.”

It’s no sur­prise that he wouldn’t dir­ectly say wheth­er a cam­paign is in the off­ing. But Cruz made clear he’s wa­ging a two-front mes­saging war on for­eign policy, at­tack­ing Pres­id­ent Obama and former Sec­ret­ary of State Hil­lary Clin­ton for their hand­ling of for­eign policy, while cast­ing him­self as a prag­mat­ist who both un­der­stands the na­tion’s war-wear­i­ness but is not afraid to use force to de­fend Amer­ic­an in­terests abroad.

“Is it true that the Amer­ic­an people are war-weary? Ab­so­lutely,” Cruz said. “We are tired of send­ing our sons and daugh­ters to dis­tant lands year after year after year, to give their lives try­ing to trans­form for­eign na­tions. But I think it’s a ser­i­ous mis­read­ing of the Amer­ic­an people to con­clude that we are un­will­ing to de­fend ourselves, that we are un­will­ing to be strong and vig­or­ous de­fend­ing U.S. na­tion­al se­cur­ity.”

Cruz’s for­eign policy ap­proach starts with soft power—push­ing tough­er sanc­tions on Ir­an and Rus­sia, for in­stance, and us­ing fierce rhet­or­ic to un­der­mine the le­git­im­acy of un­friendly gov­ern­ments. Cruz, whose of­fice fea­tures an enorm­ous paint­ing of Ron­ald Re­agan at the Branden­burg Gate, says rhet­or­ic should be para­mount in Amer­ic­an for­eign policy. “It’s a crit­ic­al re­spons­ib­il­ity of the pres­id­ent of the United States to speak out as a clari­on voice for free­dom,” Cruz said.

As for the con­di­tions for use of force, Cruz ap­pears ready to de­ploy the U.S. mil­it­ary, but not in a na­tion-build­ing or oc­cu­pa­tion ca­pa­city, a po­s­i­tion his team likely cal­cu­lates as a poll win­ner, con­sid­er­ing Amer­ic­ans’ dis­sat­is­fac­tion with un­suc­cess­ful ef­forts in Ir­aq and Afgh­anistan.

“If and when mil­it­ary ac­tion is called for, it should be A) with a clearly defined mil­it­ary ob­ject­ive, B) ex­ecuted with over­whelm­ing force, and C) when we’re done we should get the heck out,” he said. “I don’t think it’s the job of our mil­it­ary to en­gage in na­tion-build­ing. It is the job of our mil­it­ary to pro­tect Amer­ica and to hunt down and kill those who would threaten to murder Amer­ic­ans. It is not the job of our mil­it­ary to oc­cupy coun­tries across the globe and try to turn them in­to demo­crat­ic uto­pi­as.”

While Cruz pre­dict­ably saves his strongest cri­ti­cism for Obama and Clin­ton—ty­ing them to­geth­er by re­peatedly tag­ging the cur­rent White House ap­proach as an “Obama-Clin­ton for­eign policy”—he spends con­sid­er­able time con­trast­ing his po­s­i­tions with those of his likely rivals. In fact, Cruz’s de­sire to ex­ploit Paul’s per­ceived weak­ness on for­eign policy has in large part driv­en the Texas sen­at­or’s brand-build­ing strategy thus far. It’s cer­tainly what has led Cruz to fo­cus early and of­ten on es­tab­lish­ing friends in the pro-Is­rael com­munity of voters and donors, which re­mains wary of the liber­tari­an from Ken­tucky.

Cruz has nev­er been shy about show­ing solid­ar­ity with the Jew­ish state. (It back­fired re­cently when he walked off stage to the sound of boo­ing at an event for per­se­cuted Middle East Chris­ti­ans after telling at­tendees they had “no great­er ally” than Is­rael.)

Cruz has made three trips to Is­rael in less than two years in of­fice. He has ref­er­enced the coun­try thou­sands of times on the Sen­ate floor, ac­cord­ing to the Con­gres­sion­al Re­cord. He has even be­gun meet­ing privately with Jew­ish lead­ers and ad­vocacy groups dur­ing re­cent trips to early primary states. To leave no doubts, Cruz wel­comes vis­it­ors to his per­son­al of­fice with a large, framed pho­to­graph of him­self, his wife, and Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Net­an­yahu.

Sources close to Cruz say much of this is meant to ex­ploit the anxi­ety with­in the pro-Is­rael move­ment about Paul, who once echoed his fath­er in sug­gest­ing an end to Is­raeli for­eign aid. Paul has been la­bor­ing to re­pair re­la­tions with Jew­ish lead­ers. But Cruz al­lies, con­fid­ent that “they aren’t buy­ing it,” say the Texas sen­at­or has con­tac­ted some of the same parties to em­phas­ize his com­mit­ment to their cause.

“It’s no ac­ci­dent that Cruz is spon­sor­ing bill after bill, mak­ing speech after speech, about Is­rael and men­tion­ing Is­raeli cit­izens and Is­raeli causes—all with Rand right there in the cham­ber,” said one Cruz ad­viser, who spoke on con­di­tion of an­onym­ity to de­scribe the sen­at­or’s strategy.

What makes this con­trast so ef­fect­ive, of course, is how little day­light ex­ists oth­er­wise between Cruz and Paul. Both fresh­men sen­at­ors ran in­sur­gent, tea-party-backed cam­paigns and have been her­al­ded as lead­ers of the con­ser­vat­ive move­ment. But as both man­euvered in­to po­s­i­tion for pres­id­en­tial cam­paigns, something had to give. And in March, it did.

“I’m a big fan of Rand Paul; he and I are good friends. I don’t agree with him on for­eign policy,” Cruz said on ABC’s This Week. “I think U.S. lead­er­ship is crit­ic­al in the world, and I agree with him that we should be very re­luct­ant to de­ploy mil­it­ary force abroad, but I think there is a vi­tal role, just as Ron­ald Re­agan did.”

Cruz’s open­ing vol­ley—as­sert­ing that he and Paul are ba­sic­ally the same kind of con­ser­vat­ive, save for Paul’s views on for­eign policy—launched something of a “Cold War” between the two of­fices, sources fa­mil­i­ar with the situ­ation said. The day fol­low­ing Cruz’s com­ments on ABC, Paul wrote an op-ed for Breit­bart.com that read: “Every Re­pub­lic­an likes to think he or she is the next Ron­ald Re­agan. Some who say this do so for lack of their own ideas and agenda…. What we don’t need right now is politi­cians who have nev­er seen war talk­ing tough for the sake of their polit­ic­al ca­reers.”

Cruz isn’t alone in at­tack­ing Paul. Oth­er po­ten­tial rivals, such as Sen. Marco Ru­bio of Flor­ida and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, also have poked at his for­eign policy po­s­i­tions, lead­ing Paul to pen a Time op-ed this month en­titled, “I Am Not an Isol­a­tion­ist.”

When asked his opin­ion on that piece, Cruz smiled and took a long pause. “I will leave it to Rand Paul to char­ac­ter­ize his own views,” he said. A mo­ment later, he ad­ded: “In the Sen­ate there is a wide spec­trum of views on for­eign policy. On one end of the spec­trum you have Rand Paul; on a very dif­fer­ent end of the spec­trum you have John Mc­Cain. Both have been force­ful about their views on for­eign policy. I would char­ac­ter­ize my po­s­i­tion as a third point on the tri­angle.”

Cruz calls this “the sweet spot.” By his own cal­cu­la­tion, Re­pub­lic­an voters who soured on end­less war in Ir­aq and Afgh­anistan drif­ted in re­cent years from Mc­Cain’s pole to­ward Paul’s but are sud­denly re­con­sid­er­ing that move after see­ing Amer­ic­an journ­al­ists murdered by ji­hadists.

Cruz’s for­eign policy pro­file cap­tures this con­flict. In one breath he says, “It is not the job of our mil­it­ary to oc­cupy coun­tries across the globe and try to turn them in­to Demo­crat­ic uto­pi­as,” and in the next he calls the Is­lam­ic State “the face of evil” and ar­gues they must be de­feated with over­whelm­ing mil­it­ary force. These prin­ciples are not in­her­ently in con­flict, but as many pres­id­ents have come to real­ize, they are of­ten dif­fi­cult to marry.

While the “sweet spot” Cruz aims to carve might provide a pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate some polit­ic­al refuge, it will be tem­por­ary. In 2016, as voters re­cog­nize a world that looks in­creas­ingly in­sec­ure, Cruz will be asked to an­swer a fun­da­ment­al ques­tion: Should the pres­id­ent con­sider put­ting Amer­ic­an boots on Mideast soil?

“We should do whatever is ne­ces­sary,” Cruz said slowly, “to pro­tect this coun­try.”

Up­date (2:55 PM): 

In re­sponse to this Na­tion­al Journ­al story de­tail­ing his pre­par­a­tion for a 2016 cam­paign, Cruz is­sued a state­ment say­ing: “Con­trary to me­dia re­ports this morn­ing, Heidi and I have not made any de­cisions about polit­ic­al plans past the mid-term elec­tions. Clearly we have an overzeal­ous sup­port­er out there mak­ing freel­ance com­ments, but to be clear, no de­cision has been made.”

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