The Ukraine crisis has given GOP foreign policy hawks a fresh opportunity to reassert themselves in a party that has seen rising isolationist sentiment…

Republicans nearly across the board contend what they view as Mr. Obama’s missteps in foreign affairs—such as his threat to bomb Syria, later withdrawn—might have emboldened hostile leaders like Mr. Putin. “After several crises, the pendulum is swinging back” to a more assertive posture, said Richard Grenell, a Bush-era spokesman at the United Nations. He described the party’s stance as “diplomacy with muscle.”…

Since Mr. Obama took office, the GOP struggled to formulate a unified vision for America’s role in the world. The long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan made it harder to return to Bush-era hawkishness. The rising influence of tea-party activists also brought a strain of anti-interventionism and opposition to military spending increases…

During the next three years, some Republicans in Congress moved in that direction. “A lot of Republicans would love to have the party take on the president on lack of leadership and inadequate defense spending,” said former Rep. Vin Weber, who advised Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign. “But the party is not as clearly where it was 20 years ago. There is a growing neo-isolationist strain at the grass-roots.”

During an interview with the Washington Post’s Robert Costa, conducted on February 24, and posted on February 25 (after pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted, but before Russia’s invasion into Crimea), Paul said: ”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.”…

“The Ukraine has a long history of either being part of the Soviet Union or within that sphere,” Paul continued to the Post, seeming to defend their parochial interest in the region. “I don’t think it behooves us to tell the Ukraine what to do. I’m not excited about saying ‘hey, let’s put the Ukraine in NATO’ to rub Russia’s nose in it.”…

We are still a long way from 2016, and elections are rarely decided primarily on foreign policy, but one gets the sense that this is an issue that doesn’t naturally favor Paul.

For a few years now, a war-weary America has experienced what might be described as an anti-interventionist zeitgeist. The question is whether or not that is tenable. Republican primary voters might — depending on the world situation — return to a more traditional (for the modern GOP, at least) hawkish foreign policy. (After all, one has to assume that a certain amount of dovishness is merely an anti-Obama phenomenon.)

Enter Rubio. The Floridian claims to reject the “obsolete” labels of hawk and dove, interventionist and noninterventionist. But the common theme of Rubio’s months-long, transcontinental foreign policy proselytization tour is articulating a strong America that is active and engaged in every part of the world. His takedown of Harkin was just the latest example, and the response—the speech registered a quarter-million YouTube hits within 72 hours and was raved about in GOP circles—showed the hunger in the party for someone to rebut the nascent libertarian wing. Whether intended or not, Rubio’s speech may have signaled the beginning of the anti-Rand auditions for 2016

“When you look at 2016 in terms of prospective candidates, Marco Rubio definitely seems to be doing the most to develop a foreign policy profile,” said GOP strategist Kevin Madden, a veteran of Mitt Romney’s presidential campaigns. “And it’s happening at a time when many Republicans are looking for a strong counterpoint to the administration—and also a new voice. John McCain and Lindsey Graham are well established. They want to hear from someone new.”…

“The group that would support Paul and his isolationism is more limited than the group that would support someone who wants a more robust role for America in the world as a peacemaker,” said Fred Malek, a longtime GOP consultant who chaired McCain’s finance operation during his 2008 presidential campaign…

But unlike his prospective competition, Rubio, by nature of working in Washington and serving on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, can uniquely position himself on the national stage as Paul’s ideological counterweight in the run-up to 2016. Indeed, while there are many disadvantages to being a presidential candidate serving in Congress, Rubio is exploiting one giant upside.

“Even though the media doesn’t give it a lot of attention, a lot of Americans do care about the tyranny we see in Cuba and Venezuela,” [Rubio spokesman Alex] Conant said. “America is a beacon of hope for millions of repressed people around the world and I think people appreciate Sen. Rubio clearly making the case for American leadership.”

It also helped that in the days following Rubio’s remarks, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine unleashed a flood of commentary comparing Vladimir Putin’s actions to Soviet-era tactics. Cold War communism is top-of-mind again on the right, and many conservatives are eager to frame political debate about Ukraine as a choice between Rubio’s articulate tough talk and the weak-willed hedging and confused-grandpa muttering of President Obama and Harkin, respectively.

Of course, with Republicans still philosophically divided over foreign policy, it’s less clear how that message might translate to a concrete agenda in regard to Russia. Rubio’s eight-step proposal to punish Putin’s regime, for instance, has been welcomed with respect on the right, but not with the same fawning his Cuba speech inspired.

Meanwhile, as Rubio once again enjoys 2016 hype, his senior staff remains clear-eyed about how media narratives can work. One aide said he expected the backlash to the Rubio comeback story to materialize within weeks.

Rubio’s move to speak out forcefully on the issue carries little short-term political risk for a senator positioning himself as a strong Obama critic in advance of a presidential run he is expected to launch about a year from now.

But to non-interventionist thinkers, Paul’s more cautious tact figures to pay long-term dividends among voters both in and out of the GOP, who increasingly want the United States to reduce its footprint on the international stage after more than a dozen years of war.

“Obama’s a unifying issue for Republicans, and it’s pretty safe if you’re aspiring to something higher to build your support within the Republican base by criticizing Obama,” said Chris Preble, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute. “But there are huge differences between Marco Rubio and Rand Paul, and eventually those details are going to get fleshed out.”

“Are we war-weary?” asked Cruz. “As a consequence to that, does that mean we are no longer willing to defend ourselves? I think that is a profound misreading of the American people. The Republican Party—you can point to two points on the spectrum, where Republicans lie. On one side you have the views of John McCain. The other end of the spectrum, you have the views of Rand Paul. Now, with respect, my views are very much the views of Ronald Reagan, which I would suggest is a third point on the triangle.”

He gave some examples. “I agree with Rand Paul that we should not engage with military conflict in Syria,” Cruz said. The Obama administration had lost him when it described a strike not to achieve a long-term goal but to punish the state for contravening international law. “Tut tut, you violated international law, you’re no longer welcome in our faculty lounge,” snarked Cruz.

But he agreed with John McCain on Iran. “When Iran describes Israel as the Little Satan, and America as the Great Satan, we have every interest to make sure they don’t acquire the weaponry to kill millions of Americans.” Cruz imagined a nightmare scenario in which Iran detonated a bomb over “Tel Aviv or New York or Los Angeles.” Detonated here, the effects of an EMP attack could kill “tens of millions of Americans.”

Let’s be honest, there’s a lot of space between McCain and Paul, and I think we would probably agree that when it comes to style, temperament, etc., Cruz is a lot closer to Paul than he is to McCain (remember the whole “wacko birds” thing?) During his CPAC speech, for example, Cruz praised Ronald Reagan and Ron Paul for being the two candidates who attracted young supporters. (His mention of McCain was less positive. “Of course, all of us remember President Dole, President McCain, President Romney,” he said.)

So basically, the Cruz strategy is to get close to Paul, while still staying toward the middle of the field. If you care about small government, both guys are good. Want to take on Obama? Check. Don’t like drone strikes, want to close the IRS, hate ObamaCare? Check. Check. Check.

But Cruz is making a bet that Paul’s more libertarian positions on issues like non-interventionism aren’t a mainstream opinion. So he will set up shop just on the other side of Paul. Anyone who says, “I really like Paul’s position, but I think we need to stand up to Russia,” now has a home. Or the guy who says, “I hate drones, but I don’t want Iran to go nuclear,” has a candidate.

The excitement over candidates like Rand Paul come from that source. Millennials have already tuned out, and will tune out, those they view as “warmongers” or anything of the kind (as they share listicles of “the 15 countries John McCain wanted to bomb”). This makes for a dangerous situation on the right, as a return to traditional tough-sounding Jacksonian rhetoric (of the sort Cruz deployed today) will require voters to have faith that the big stick will not be deployed too eagerly or frequently, and that American lives will only be put at risk in situations where there is a clear path to victory, a clearly important issue at stake, and we are taking sides to seek the defeat of a clearly identified enemy.

The American people need to trust the judgment of their leaders – leaders who can make the case for the importance of America retaining military power in a dangerous world, but who can also be trusted not to engage that power in every situation, backsliding into the temptation to be the world’s policeman or ending tyranny everywhere. The absence of a serious, adult voice on these issues has led us to the current circumstance. This vacuum of leadership outside of McCain and Lindsey Graham – and next up, Marco Rubio and Tom Cotton – leads to a defined “Republican view” from the media’s perspective which allows the GOP to be framed as the party of war – one where the Paul/Mike Lee/Justin Amash side of the equation is too often ignored.

Cruz’s comments make me look forward to the 2016 debate all the more.

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