People expected to debate the isolationist tendencies of a Republican Senator running for the party’s presidential nomination. Who would have guessed that debate would center on Ted Cruz? During the debate on Tuesday night that focused mainly on foreign policy, Wolf Blitzer asked Cruz about the US efforts on regime change over the last twenty years, decisions criticized by Cruz. In his answer, Cruz characterized his approach by using a phrase historically associated with a much different philosophy than the one he espoused (transcript from CNN, emphasis mine):

BLITZER: Senator Cruz, you have said the world would be safer today if Saddam Hussein were still in power in Iraq, Moammar Gadhafi ruled Libya, and Hosni Mubarak ruled Egypt. So would it be your policy to preserve dictatorships, rather than promoting democracy in the Middle East?

CRUZ: Wolf, I believe in an America first foreign policy, that far too often President Obama and Hillary Clinton — and, unfortunately, more than a few Republicans — have gotten distracted from the central focus of keeping this country safe.

So let’s go back to the beginning of the Obama administration, when Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama led NATO in toppling the government in Libya. They did it because they wanted to promote democracy. A number of Republicans supported them. The result of that — and we were told then that there were these moderate rebels that would take over. Well, the result is, Libya is now a terrorist war zone run by jihadists.

Move over to Egypt. Once again, the Obama administration, encouraged by Republicans, toppled Mubarak who had been a reliable ally of the United States, of Israel, and in its place, Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood came in, a terrorist organization.

And we need to learn from history. These same leaders — Obama, Clinton, and far too many Republicans — want to topple Assad. Assad is a bad man. Gadhafi was a bad man. Mubarak had a terrible human rights record. But they were assisting us — at least Gadhafi and Mubarak — in fighting radical Islamic terrorists.

And if we topple Assad, the result will be ISIS will take over Syria, and it will worsen U.S. national security interests. And the approach, instead of being a Woodrow Wilson democracy promoter[,] we ought to hunt down our enemies and kill ISIS rather than creating opportunities for ISIS to take control of new countries.

Perhaps Cruz himself was unaware of it at the time, but America First was the name of a movement that began in 1940, and which demanded an isolationist foreign policy after the outbreak of hostilities in Europe. Its effect (and for some its intent) was pro-German, demanding no foreign entanglements and strict neutrality, even opposing aid to the British. It grew to 800,000 people and had among its adherents names like John F. Kennedy, Gerald Ford, Potter Stewart, Sargent Shriver, and others. Charles Lindbergh became its most prominent spokesman. Only after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and Hitler declared war on America in the days afterward did America First become discredited.

But that version of America First sounded nothing like Cruz did in his answer above. The movers and shakers behind that short-lived folly would hardly have endorsed traipsing into Southwest Asia to target America’s enemies; they would have argued (as some do now) that there are no enemies there that pose an existential threat to the US, and so we don’t belong there at all. “Isolationist” means military disengagement outside the borders and waters of the US, not just opposition to one form of intervention, ie, regime change and nation-building.

Cruz’ argument foolishly used a loaded phrase, but otherwise bears little resemblance to the 1940 movement or its preferred policies. Cruz wants a muscular foreign policy with plenty of intervention, but combined with a realpolitik approach that comes much closer to Brent Scowcroft than Charles Lindbergh. He’s not arguing for isolationism by opposing regime-change strategies, especially those from Barack Obama. He’s saying that those strategies get deployed to benefit the interests of others rather than pursuing American interests in directly targeting our own enemies. That may be too simplistic — Saddam Hussein was an enemy, for instance, by 1991 and afterward — but it’s a long way from the America Firsters of 1940.

David Harsanyi calls this a “smear,” which may overstate the case but is at least goes in the right direction:

I’m skeptical that saturation bombing will solve the ISIS problem, or make the Syrian situation more agreeable in the long run. But I leave any policy certitude on the topic of beating ISIS or fixing Syria to think-tankers, completely unqualified explainer types and pundits far smarter than I. What I do know is that “isolationist,” much like “neocon,” is quickly becoming a meaningless label, used not only to describe those who reflexively oppose American intervention, but to smear anyone who is unconvinced that trying to engineer democracies in Islamic societies through military power is a good idea.

This isolationist canard is part of a broader set of false choices that dominate foreign policy debate on the Right these days. …

Earlier this month, Cruz gave a speech at the Heritage Foundation that fleshed out his outlook by reviving Jeane Kirkpatrick’s “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” which argued that disposing of autocrats in an effort to push democracy and protect human rights did not always work in America’s best interests. The United States, Cruz argued, “cannot treat democracy promotion as an absolute directive; but rather as a highly desirable ideal.” He also pointed out that the progress of liberal democracy was not an “inevitable, linear evolution in human affairs.” …

Cruz is no libertarian, that’s for certain. It’s more reasonable to think of Cruz’s position on American power, as one of his critics Michael Gerson put it in The Washington Post, is an “uncomfortable straddle” of both sides of the conservative foreign policy argument. This straddling means that Cruz’s positions—whatever you make of them—will be less crisp than Marco Rubio’s. What it doesn’t mean is that Ted Cruz is the new Charles Lindbergh.

Oddly, the one man who did sound a little more isolationist got almost no notice for it. Rand Paul, not Ted Cruz, questioned all of our military interventions in the Middle East and argued that America and the world was worse off for them. Paul’s almost an afterthought these days, and so is the movement started by his father which had a lot more similarity to the America Firsters than Cruz ever has.

Smear or not, the attempt to label Cruz as a crypto-isolationist because he put the word “first” after the word “America” to explain his priorities is deeply unserious and ahistorical. Let’s hope that argument becomes too embarrassing to push soon. Today would be a good time, in fact.