Rand Paul is no longer a candidate for the presidency. After a fifth-place finish in Iowa, preceded by months of steady declines in poll numbers and fundraising, the Kentucky senator finally acknowledged what everyone has known for a long time and released a statement this morning suspending his doomed presidential campaign. So the candidate who was once the Democrats’ worst nightmare, the guy who was going to unite the conservative and libertarian factions of the GOP while siphoning off minority voters on his way to a crushing victory, didn’t even make it to the first primary.
There are going to be a lot of post-mortems (to go along with the already voluminous collection of pre-mortems) explaining what went wrong for Paul, so we can leave that to the side for the moment. The immediate impact of Paul’s departure will be to significantly lessen the already limited ideological diversity of the Republican presidential field. One example that stands out prominently for me is torture. Paul’s disappearance from the Republican field (along with Lindsey Graham’s exit in December) means that the number of GOP candidates for the presidency who vocally oppose the use of torture has now dwindled to just one man: Sen. Ted Cruz.
For the rest of the Republican field, the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” is either something to be enthusiastically pursued or conspicuously left “on the table” as a tool for fighting terrorism. Donald Trump is the most openly pro-torture candidate, calling for the use of waterboarding on terrorism detainees regardless of its efficacy as an interrogation method: “If it doesn’t work, they deserve it anyway.” Ben Carson’s argument for permitting torture is that “there is no such thing as a politically correct war.” Marco Rubio opposed legislation affirming the executive order Barack Obama signed banning torture techniques, arguing that he won’t deny “future commanders in chief and intelligence officials important tools for protecting the American people and the U.S. homeland.” Jeb Bush’s brother started the post-9/11 U.S. torture regime, and he’s signaled an openness to bringing it back. Chris Christie doesn’t believe waterboarding is torture and says we should “do whatever we need to do to get actionable intelligence that’s within the Constitution.”
This faith in torture as an interrogation tool is prevalent within the Republican field despite the fact that the Bush administration’s torture program was a brutal and ghastly nightmare that operated without oversight and swept up innocent people while providing no intelligence gains. As The Week’s Ryan Cooper has assiduously documented, scientific investigations and other inquiries have determined pretty conclusively that torture is a worthless interrogation tool. It also harms intelligence gathering efforts by alienating law enforcement personnel who have moral objections to torture. There exists no practical or moral justification for employing torture. But Republicans either defend the practice or refuse to rule it out because it’s part of the Republican national security legacy and they believe it makes them look like tough, responsible stewards of national security.
The one remaining candidate who is on the right side of this issue is Cruz. He’s been cagey about specifically denouncing the Bush-era interrogation tactics as “torture,” but last summer Cruz voted in favor of an amendment that would codify the Obama administration’s ban on those techniques and limit interrogators to the techniques contained in the Army Field Manual. In December, he gave an interview to the Associated Press reaffirming his opposition to “torture” in general terms:
While Assad is undoubtedly a "bad man," removing him from power would be "materially worse for U.S. national security interests," he says. He is unwilling to send more U.S. ground forces into the Middle East and rejects the idea that torture can serve as an appropriate interrogation tool.
"We can defend our nation and be strong and uphold our values," he says. "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."
So while Cruz hasn’t exactly voiced hard, specific opposition to the Bush torture regime, he’s voted to make sure it doesn’t come back, and he’s been a vocal critic of the idea of torture as U.S. policy. It’s appalling that that makes him a minority within the Republican presidential field, but right now Cruz stands alone as the only would-be Republican president who has demonstrated at least some opposition to dragging the country back into the dark abyss of “enhanced interrogation techniques.”