The Republican primary has rapidly descended into a kind of absurdism that would give Camus pause, but it could get worse; as Simon Maloy argued on Tuesday, Ted Cruz is emerging as an alternative to Donald Trump and Marco Rubio, albeit one with little chance at winning the nomination. For Cruz, however, playing the role of an amenable figure somewhere between Trump and Rubio may be a tall order for several reasons and one very big one: foreign policy.
Cruz, in his own words, is trying to find the “middle ground” on an issue that’s both incredibly important and polarizing for Republicans, where neither side really knows what to do with the other. At the last Republican debate, we saw Cruz fashioning himself as the voice of reason while Rubio and Paul sparred over foreign policy (starting at 55:58):
There is a middle ground that brings both of these together…We have to defend this nation. If you think defending this nation is expensive, try not defending it. That’s a lot more expensive, but — you can do that and pay for it. You can do that and also be fiscally responsible.
Candidates have tried to find this “middle ground” since the start of the Cold War. This question has defined intra-party debate dating back to at least the 1952 election, where the Robert Taft-led isolationists fought with party moderates, backing Dwight Eisenhower, who favored an interventionist foreign policy. Since then, foreign policy has been an issue that rarely totally unifies Republicans, with the exception of the years immediately following 9/11. Even Reagan saw heavy criticism from within his party for meeting with Gorbachev, and in the years following George W. Bush’s exit from office, it’s illuminated the difference between all of the wings of the Republican Party even more.
The party’s hawkishness has been a point of contention in every Republican primary since that Taft-Eisenhower battle, and this election is no different. Rubio represents the neoconservative, pro-hawk side of this argument, with a foreign policy-heavy platform that’s defined by putting more troops on the ground to fight ISIS and rolling back progress with Iran and Cuba, two nations with whom the current president has worked to improve relations after decades of hostility. And although military school veteran Trump has pledged to make the armed forces “so big and so strong and so great,” he has more often embraced an anti-interventionist approach closer to that of his more articulate and less successful rival Rand Paul, for which the other candidates have attacked both candidates.
Cruz miraculously falls somewhere very slightly to the left of the right wing of the pack on most major issues (proving just how insane Trump and Ben Carson are), so it’s natural for him to try to occupy this spot on foreign policy as well. Both frontrunners have glaring weak spots: Trump is a cartoon villain billionaire who has garnered support by lying about entire groups of people and events that nearly every eligible voter in 2016 witnessed, making him completely unelectable to the national electorate. Rubio, whose “frontrunner” status is based more on Bill Kristol fanfiction than reality, has transformed from a Jim DeMint devotee into the darling of Republican elites; this perception that he’s an establishment shill and lingering questions about his one attempt at doing anything remotely productive in Washington aren’t doing him any favors.
The lack of a candidate a majority Republicans can get behind cries out for someone with Cruz’s resume: a politician with some experience, but not enough to know anything about what the government actually does, who can energize the base and churn out support against Hillary Clinton in 2016. Even putting aside, however, his numerous political problems such as a lack of establishment support and low favorability even among Republicans, Cruz’s confusing foreign policy is a major roadblock to garnering popular support. Cruz explained to Bloomberg’s Sahil Kapur that his foreign policy can be summed up with one question: “How does it keep America safe? If it's keeping America safe, we should do it. If it's making America more vulnerable, we shouldn't do it.” This comes in conjunction with various disparaging remarks over the past few years about nation building — a central tenet of Bush foreign policy — which has excited some observers, such as Paul Waldman.
Cruz is someone, however, who joked just two months ago about assassinating Iran’s ayatollah, and said the Iran deal was our “Munich moment.” This is someone who called for arming the Ukrainians against Putin, a measure that doesn’t even pass his own litmus test. Cruz is someone who called restoring relations with Cuba a “tragic mistake” and, because his Vitriolic Comment Generator wasn’t working too great that day, a “slap in the face to Israel.” Cruz is someone who declares pretend war on ISIS while ignoring the real one we’re already (arguably illegally) fighting with them.
Ted Cruz’s foreign policy is hardly the “third way” that he’s portraying it to be at all: It’s just the opposite of whatever he thinks Barack Obama is doing. As John Allen Gay, an editor for the conservative foreign policy journal the National Interest, said in a piece called “Ted Cruz’s New Foreign Policy Isn’t Conservative” last year:
That Cruz rejects nation building does not mean he has found that wisdom. He has not yet found a foreign policy of realistic, conservative, “merely human” purposes.
The problem with idealism like Cruz’s, as conservatives have been arguing for centuries, is that it often fails to achieve its aims, and in failing only makes things worse.
The real irony is that now, on the issue that most illuminates the differences between the major candidates for the Republican nomination, Cruz is especially flimsy, switching between an isolationist and hawkish bent depending on the day and whom he’s talking to. This makes him even worse than Rubio and Trump, because at least with those candidates, we know what we’re getting. Rubio is a trigger-happy neocon, and Trump is someone who thinks he’ll be able to deal or strong-arm his way out of any potential conflict. Cruz is something much worse: an übergrifter positioning himself as an acceptable, nuanced alternative while still trying to figure out how to make a policy proposal that doesn’t sound like a YouTube comment. Cruz will never convince the national electorate that this is enough, but luckily for the rest of us, he has no chance of getting Republicans to buy it, either.