New foreign policy contrasts between top-tier Republican presidential candidates Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio came into focus on Thursday when the two delivered speeches to the Republican Jewish Coalition meeting in Washington.
And voters at the gathering took note.
The two Cuban American first-term senators have been locked in an escalating foreign policy battle since Rubio attacked Cruz for voting to curtail mass government collection of Americans’ phone data. Earlier this week, in an interview with Bloomberg, Cruz fired back, portraying his Florida colleague as a “neo-con” interventionist whose support for “military adventurism” in Libya and Syria emboldens terrorists. Further, the Texas senator compared Rubio to Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton.
The differences between the two over the appropriate use of U.S. military power sharpened at the gathering of Jewish Republicans.
Cruz, who believes U.S. military power should be used narrowly to protect American interests, explained his opposition to nation-building. He inveighed against “the misguided foreign policy of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and unfortunately too many Republicans in the Senate,” arguing that the 2011 toppling of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, which Rubio supported, meant that “Libya has been handed over to radical Islamic terrorists.”
He added that politicians “in both parties” are on the verge of making the same mistake in Syria, which is in the midst of a civil war between leader Bashar Assad, the Islamic State and a more moderate opposition. It was a dig at Rubio, who like Clinton, supports U.S. intervention in Syria that includes a no-fly zone and arming moderate rebels, which Cruz believes could benefit the Islamic State.
Moments later, Rubio framed the intra-party debate as one between foreign engagement and isolationism, leaving little space for a middle ground like Cruz’s, in order to buttress his philosophy that the U.S. should use its military might both to defend itself and to spread democracy and human rights around the globe.
“In choosing a president, we need to look at what candidates do, not just what they say,” Rubio said. “Just a few short years ago, many in my own party were trying to derail the postwar consensus about America’s role in the world. They will never call themselves isolationists, but that is exactly what they are.” He called the idea of keeping Assad in power as a counterweight against the Islamic State “simplistic.”
Both speeches were well-received by the crowd of several hundred attendees who traveled to Washington from around the country. A number of them noticed the foreign policy differences between the two senators.
Miriam Miller, a 67-year-old real estate investor based in Los Angeles, said she plans to support Cruz for the nomination. “Removing a dictator and replacing it with a so called vacuum of leadership and so called democracy has not worked well,” she said, citing the toppling of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Cruz is “not ambivalent about his thoughts on feelings – he has a proven track record in the Senate,” she said.
And Rubio? “I’m not as enthused by him,” said Miller.
Darryl May, a 59-year-old lawyer from Pennsylvania, plans to support Rubio due to “a combination of his positions and, frankly, his electability.”
“There are differences,” May said. “I look at foreign policy as tied in with domestic security. Rubio and Cruz’s position on the surveillance programs differ. That is very much a part of this. Their positions on Syria differ,” he said, arguing that Rubio’s pro-engagement approach was more forward-looking.
Ari Fleischer, former press secretary for President George W. Bush and a board member of the RJC who attended the event, said Rubio offered the most muscular foreign policy.
“Rubio’s remarks struck more chords with this group than Ted’s remarks,” Fleischer told Bloomberg. “Ted is walking the line between isolationism and intervention. Rubio is much more a classic peace-through-strength, U.S.-must-lead candidate.”
Differences aside, important similarities were also on display, most notably in their promises to stand with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose relationship with President Barack Obama has been notably sour.
The two senators’ rhetoric toward the Islamic State terrorist group was nearly identical. “We win, they lose,” said Cruz. “Either they win or we win,” said Rubio. Cruz labeled its ideology “radical Islamic terrorism”; Rubio called it “radical, apocalyptic Islam.”
Both attacked Obama’s pact with Iran aimed at stopping the country from building a nuclear weapon. Cruz promised to “shred” it, while Rubio promised to “rip it to shreds.” Both touted pro- Israel initiatives they have backed as legislators.
Rosalie Klein, a 65-year-old real estate broker from Beverly Hills, said she plans to vote for Cruz in the California Republican primary.
“I like Ted Cruz. I admire his courage. I believe in his leadership, his honesty and his knowledge,” she said. If he’s president, “This country will be proud to be Americans again and not be ashamed anymore.”
As for Rubio, “I like him a lot but I think he still has a few years to go,” Klein said. “Maybe next time. I don’t think he’s as ready to lead us and to lead the country.”