President Barack Obama’s decision to unilaterally abandon over five decades of American policy toward Cuba and seek the normalization of relations with that recalcitrant communist dictatorship was met with near universal acclaim from the Democratic Party base. Obama’s decision has not, however, been so uniformly opposed on the Republican side of the aisle.
Led by Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), a large bloc of Republican voters has embraced the president’s determination to reform America’s self-evidently unproductive approach to relations with Cuba. The GOP’s resurgent hawks have opposed this move because it rewards the Castro regime and places no onus on them to pursue domestic reforms. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) quickly emerged as the GOP’s leading figure representing the wing of the party opposed to normalizing relations with Cuba, and it was not long before these two figures began trading barbs in public.
When Paul praised the president’s decision to reduce bilateral tensions with Cuba, Rubio said that the famously libertarian senator does not “know what he’s talking about.” This prompted Paul to launch a string of ill-conceived tweets in which he scolded Rubio over his “isolationism” and erroneously claimed Cuban normalization would merely mirror United States rapprochement with China and Vietnam.
Over the weekend, the increasingly acrimonious war of words between Paul and Rubio deepened.
“Rand, if he wants to become the chief cheerleader of Obama’s foreign policy, he certainly has a right to do that,” Rubio told ABC News anchor George Stephanopoulos on Sunday. “I’m going to continue to oppose the Obama-Paul foreign policy on Cuba because I know it won’t lead to freedom and liberty for the Cuban people, which is my sole interest here.”
The Paul camp could not let this association with Obama stand. In a counterattack, a Paul advisor provided ABC News with a statement in which he attempted to claim that it is actually Rubio’s approach to foreign affairs that more closely resembles the president’s:
With all due respect, Senator Marco Rubio was captain of the GOP cheerleading team for Obama’s arming of Syrian rebels, bombing Libya resulting in a jihadist wonderland, and illegally giving foreign aid to Egypt’s military government. The Rubio-Obama foreign policy has made the Middle East and North Africa less safe. [Emphasis added]
If nothing else, this bitterness provides Obama with an opportunity to deploy his favorite rhetorical trick of suggesting that his opponents occupy the fringes of American political thought while he represents the calm, measured center. In that sense, Republicans are done no favors by the Paul-Rubio feud, regardless of which side you believe has the upper hand.
But the fact that both Paul and Rubio are seeking to link the other to Obama’s approach to foreign affairs concedes how toxic that association is for these two potential presidential candidates. With that concession in mind, it is worth re-reading a few observations that Allahpundit made on Friday.
Why would Rand unload on Rubio knowing that he’ll be accused of carrying Barack Obama’s water on foreign policy? “He believes in his position” is no answer; as I’ve explained, that’s never stopped Rand from moderating before. One Twitter pal theorized that maybe Paul hit hard here because he wanted to stand out in the field. But … that’s my point. He already stands out! He stands out so much on foreign policy that he’s spent two years trying to stand out less, knowing that it’s a potential liability for him. Another friend speculates that Paul likes the “you’re the real isolationist!” line so much that he couldn’t resist throwing it in Rubio’s face, even if it means stridently opposing conservative orthodoxy in this case. When Rubio or Jeb Bush calls him an isolationist at the first presidential debate next year, Rand now has a ready comeback. The problem there, though, is that it won’t just be Rubio or Bush who’s calling him that; it’ll be the entire field, Christie, Walker, Huckabee, you name it. If mainstream conservatives watch 20 different big-name Republican pols assure them that Paul’s dangerously naive on Cuba, how much counterweight will Paul saying “no, you’re the naive one!” really have? Worst of all, perhaps, Paul’s devoted the past year to building the case that, as a “realist,” he’s actually the true heir to Ronald Reagan on foreign policy, not Rubio and the rest of the superhawks. What’s his counter now, though, when Rubio reminds him that the Reagan administration kept the embargo in place? It feels like he’s blowing himself up here on what would otherwise have been a boutique issue in the primaries, except for one key primary where it really matters and Paul’s bizarrely on the wrong side of it.
Indeed. As for the Paul camp’s claims that Rubio is a truer heir to the Obama foreign policy because he supported the president’s approach to Syria, that’s perfectly debatable. Rubio and many other Republicans would have preferred to address the Syrian crisis before it spilled over the borders into Iraq and inevitably forced America’s hand. What’s more, Republicans favor expanding the war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. A September New York Times/CBS poll found 62 percent of self-described Republicans favor sending ground troops back into combat in Iraq and into a new theater in Syria. A Reason-Rupe poll confirmed that, while Democrats and independents oppose using US forces to fight the Islamic State, a majority of GOP voters back using American troops to fight ISIS on all fronts.
If Paul’s counterpunch is to suggest that Rubio has supported Obama’s halfhearted approaches to fighting counter-insurgency wars in Libya, Iraq, and Syria, he is going to find that the GOP base will agree and define the solution as more direct engagement from U.S. forces in those conflicts.
So, as Allahpundit aptly asked, “what on earth is Rand Paul thinking?” If he wants to nudge the party in his direction on matters relating to the conduct of U.S. foreign policy, he is going about it in the least productive fashion possible.