The Overblown Fight Between Rand Paul and Ted Cruz

Cruz’s tiff with Paul over Ukraine lacks substance and a winning strategy.

Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Rand Paul, R-Ky.
National Journal
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Matt Vasilogambros
March 10, 2014, 8:57 a.m.

There’s a big fight brew­ing between two of the lead­ing voices of the Re­pub­lic­an Party. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz may be “good friends,” but their dif­fer­ences in for­eign policy of­fer a stark con­trast between the two sen­at­ors flirt­ing with cam­paigns to be­come the next com­mand­er in chief.

In terms of ex­cit­ing polit­ic­al nar­rat­ives, this one is pretty good, and it was one of the big head­lines that came out of CPAC and this Sunday’s talk shows. But it’s not en­tirely ac­cur­ate, and very much over­blown.

This latest “fight” between the two po­ten­tial pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates is more one-sided — an at­tempt by Cruz to find some dif­fer­ence in policy to gain fa­vor among a base that might be slip­ping from his fin­gers. It’s more of a dif­fer­ence in tone, not policy.

Cruz on Sunday tried to sep­ar­ate him­self from his po­ten­tial rival Paul, telling This Week, “I don’t agree with him on for­eign policy.”

The Texas Re­pub­lic­an con­tin­ued: “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.”

ABC’s Jonath­an Karl, who in­ter­viewed Cruz, ate it up. “Cruz’s ap­proach stands in stark con­trast with fel­low tea parti­er Rand Paul,” the re­port­er said.

So, if Cruz’s ap­proach mir­rors Re­agan’s, where does that leave Paul?

“I’m a great be­liev­er in Ron­ald Re­agan. I’m a great be­liev­er in a strong na­tion­al de­fense,” Paul told Fox News Sunday.

Paul took this idea fur­ther, pen­ning an op-ed Monday de­scrib­ing Re­agan’s for­eign policy as based on both “peace through strength” and dip­lomacy.

Fine, they both want to have the same for­eign policy as Re­agan. But what about spe­cif­ic is­sues, such as Ukraine?

Cruz told ABC on Sunday that the ap­pro­pri­ate path in the re­gion would be for the U.S. to im­ple­ment sanc­tions against Rus­sia, say­ing that mil­it­ary in­ter­ven­tion was not needed.

And Paul? Well, he thinks there should be sanc­tions and visa bans too.

But look at how this star­ted. Just a few days be­fore Rus­sia sent troops in­to the Crimea re­gion of Ukraine — when the only ac­tion Vladi­mir Putin had taken was through backchan­nels — Paul told The Wash­ing­ton Post, “Some on our side are so stuck in the Cold War era that they want to tweak Rus­sia all the time and I don’t think that is a good idea.”

Three days later, the situ­ation drastic­ally changed, and so did Paul’s tone. But this is still the quote that many on the right have used to at­tack Paul’s for­eign policy, des­pite his com­ments since.

So, this isn’t much of a dif­fer­ence in policy in Ukraine. It’s not really even a dif­fer­ence in ag­gress­ive tone against Putin. What, then, is the prob­lem here? It’s polit­ics.

Paul came out as the big vic­tor at the CPAC straw poll on Sat­urday, earn­ing 31 per­cent sup­port. Cruz was in second, but with only 11 per­cent sup­port — a dis­con­cert­ing dis­tance from the win­ner.

Cruz, who sees his Re­pub­lic­an col­league from Ken­tucky main­tain­ing his pop­ular­ity with the con­ser­vat­ive base, is try­ing to use for­eign policy as a way to gain fa­vor. But that’s not ne­ces­sar­ily the best idea. He should have asked Marco Ru­bio.

One of the big­ger flops at CPAC was the Flor­ida Re­pub­lic­an, once seen as a young con­ser­vat­ive darling who could win with wide ap­peal. Today, though, he’s but a blip on the radar after isol­at­ing many con­ser­vat­ives with his work on im­mig­ra­tion re­form. At­tempt­ing to win sup­port back, he went on the of­fens­ive with for­eign policy.

In his speech on Fri­day, he tried to re­gain his con­ser­vat­ive bona fides by con­trast­ing him­self with Paul by mak­ing a strong case for Amer­ic­an in­ter­ven­tion­ism over­seas.

And how did it pan out for him? He fin­ished in a very dis­tant sev­enth place at CPAC, with only 6 per­cent sup­port. For someone who got second place last year, that’s quite the dis­ap­point­ing fin­ish. His speech did not work with that audi­ence (the mes­sage could res­on­ate with voters out­side of CPAC, like his ac­tion on im­mig­ra­tion).

Now Cruz is at­tempt­ing a sim­il­ar strategy. But if Cruz wants to stand apart from the front-run­ner, he needs to find an­oth­er is­sue. He won’t win with this one.