Like the Cold War itself, it’s all very diplomatic but has the potential to escalate quickly. Or rather, was very diplomatic: The line in Paul’s op-ed at Breitbart this morning lamenting certain unnamed critics “who have never seen war talking tough for the sake of their political careers” makes me think this could get nasty fast. Matt Lewis covered some of the history between them last week but here’s a quickie timeline if you haven’t followed it. Back in November, the NYT opened a story about the nascent battle for the 2016 tea-party vote with this tidbit:

But when Mr. Cruz went to New York City to meet with donors this summer, he privately offered a different view of Mr. Paul: The Kentucky senator can never be elected president, he told them, because he can never fully detach himself from the strident libertarianism of his father, former Representative Ron Paul of Texas.

Word of Mr. Cruz’s remarks reached Mr. Paul’s inner circle, touching off anger and resentment.

That got a lot of attention when the story first ran. What hasn’t gotten as much attention is the fact that Cruz had been trying to quietly separate himself from Paul on foreign policy for months before that, telling Time magazine last August that McCain and Paul represent the two poles of Republican opinion on foreign policy and that Cruz himself follows a more Reaganesque line between them. That’s as transparent a bit of triangulation as you’ll ever see, but it’s a clever way to frame Paul as extreme. If superhawk John McCain is one end of the spectrum and Rand Paul is the other, how radical must Paul be?

Fast-forward to late February, when Paul told WaPo (before Russia invaded Crimea) that while it’s fine to support Ukraine, it’d be foolish to needlessly antagonize a major power like Moscow by inviting Kiev to join NATO, as McCain had been doing. Some hawks in the party, he said, want to gratuitously “tweak” Moscow all the time. I was struck at the time by how different he sounded from Cruz, who’d been criticizing Russia harshly for weeks. Two weeks later, while attendeding a foreign policy event being held to coincide with CPAC, Cruz repeated his old point about McCain, Paul, and Reagan and bloggers took notice.

Evidently that was the last straw for Paul, who knows that his biggest liability in the primaries is being seen as too much like his old man on foreign policy. The longer he waits to rebut Cruz, the greater the risk that Cruz will define him in tea partiers’ eyes as unacceptably dovish. So this weekend brought a flurry of responses. On “Fox News Sunday,” he told Chris Wallace that his foreign policy is in line with George H.W. Bush’s (would President Paul have led a coalition against Saddam Hussein?) and mentioned points of agreement between himself and Reagan. Then, when Wallace asked him about Cruz’s jab at Bob Dole, McCain, and Romney for being too centrist to win their elections, Paul added this:

Asked on Fox about Cruz’s remarks, Paul said, “Everybody has their own style,” but added, “I don’t spend a lot of time trying to drag people down.”

“Can we do things different to get the party bigger? There’s always ways we can get bigger, particularly when we don’t win,” he continued. “But I don’t spend any time sort of trying to criticize others in the party, because I realize the party has to be bigger, not smaller.”

While Paul was saying that, Cruz himself was on “This Week” saying this:

“I’m a big fan of Rand Paul,” Cruz said, “but I don’t agree with him on foreign policy. I think U.S. leadership is critical in the world. 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. When Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union an evil empire, when he stood in front of the Brandenburg Gate and said, ‘Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,’ those words changed the course of history. The United States has a responsibility to defend our values.”

Skip to around 1:50 of the clip below. Yet again, Cruz had claimed the mantle of Reagan in drawing a distinction with Paul.

So Paul replied today with two op-eds. One, at Time magazine, emphasizes “strong action against Putin’s aggression.” Sanctions, international isolation for Putin, and, most notably, a reminder that “it is our role as a global leader to be the strongest nation in opposing Russia’s latest aggression” — it’s as hawkish as anything you’d see from Cruz or Marco Rubio, a few paragraphs at the end about not launching interventions we can’t pay for aside. He even calls for re-installing a U.S. missile shield in eastern Europe, provided that Europeans pick up the cost. A key passage:

Reagan’s policy of “peace through strength” requires strength of the sort President Obama now fails to project. But what some American leaders, including some in my own party, often forget is that lasting peace was always Reagan’s ultimate objective.

I have said, and some have taken exception, that too many U.S. leaders still think in Cold War terms and are quick to “tweak” the international community. This is true.

But mutual respect and practical diplomacy is a two-way street, where Russia or any other nation should not be tweaking us either, or their neighbors.

Putin’s invasion and occupation of Crimea certainly now goes far beyond tweaking.

I’m curious to see how libertarians and paleocons react to that. Russia dominating its satellite states was, I thought, a classic case of “MYOB” given that there are few American national interests involved. The other op-ed, at Breitbart (and linked up top), is a direct rebuke to members of his own party who shall remain nameless to stop “warping” Reagan’s foreign policy. Guess who this is aimed at. Hint: Not McCain.

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. Reagan was a great leader and President. But too often people make him into something he wasn’t in order to serve their own political purposes…

Many forget today that Reagan’s decision to meet with Mikhail Gorbachev was harshly criticized by the Republican hawks of his time, some of whom would even call Reagan an appeaser. In the Middle East, Reagan strategically pulled back our forces after the tragedy in Lebanon in 1983 that killed 241 Marines, realizing the cost of American lives was too great for the mission…

I don’t claim to be the next Ronald Reagan nor do I attempt to disparage fellow Republicans as not being sufficiently Reaganesque. But I will remind anyone who thinks we will win elections by trashing previous Republican nominees or holding oneself out as some paragon in the mold of Reagan, that splintering the party is not the route to victory…

Yet, some politicians have used this time to beat their chest. What we don’t need right now is politicians who have never seen war talking tough for the sake of their political careers.

Paul’s never seen war either and, after that Time op-ed, he’s talking about as tough as anyone. The obvious move for Cruz now, if he wants to escalate further, is to claim that Paul’s the one posturing for political ends, posing as some sort of Reagan/Bush “peace through strength” negotiator when, Cruz could argue, he’d follow the Ron Paul line in office if elected. But maybe Cruz doesn’t need to respond; maybe the whole point here is to bait Paul into hawkishness knowing that some libertarians will grumble about it. Then, when/if Paul tries to satisfy them by taking a more dovish line in the future, some of the grassroots conservatives intrigued by his newly hawkish stance on Russia will wonder if Cruz is right that Paul is privately more dovish than everyone thinks. The more the two sides of Paul’s base have reason to doubt he’d be their guy in office, the more difficult Paul’s task becomes.

Exit question: Quien es mas Reagan?