'Imagine' Ted Cruz As Commander In Chief
The self-declared outsider launches his presidential bid with national security stances that don’t stray far from the ‘mushy middle’ he denounces.
Ted Cruz, the Tea Party-backed Texas senator who has embarked on solo crusades in Congress to make himself a conservative champion — and has irked pretty much everyone, including his fellow Republicans, in the process — declared his candidacy for the 2016 presidential election on Monday, vowing to strike bold, principled stances against what he’s dubbed the “mushy middle” of American politics.
Yet when it comes to national security, the freshman senator looks a lot like other mainstream Republican hawks. And despite his service on the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee — a singular distinction among likely 2016 GOP contenders — Cruz is not widely seen as commander-in-chief material. A November survey of nearly 500 people in the national security community ranked him dead last among potential picks for the White House.
“Instead of a president who boycotts Prime Minister Netanyahu, imagine a president who stands unapologetically with the nation of Israel,” Cruz told a crowd of students at Liberty University, billed as the largest Christian university in the world. “Instead of a president who seeks to go to the United Nations and end-run Congress and the American people, imagine a president who says, ‘I will honor the Constitution, and under no circumstances will Iran be allowed to acquire a nuclear weapon.’ Imagine a president who says, ‘We will stand up and defeat radical Islamic terrorism — and we will call it by its name.’”
If Cruz wants “imagine” to stick as a campaign motif, he’ll probably have to do better than the pro-Israel, anti-Iran, and anti-President Barack Obama stances he briefly touched on Monday. Along with “repealing every word of Obamacare” and “abolish the IRS,” they are the same slabs of Republican red meat that Cruz, and every other potential rival for the GOP nomination, have been throwing out for months, even years. That indistinguishability will prove an even greater challenge for Cruz deeper in the primary season. Despite his notoriety in his short time in Congress for such stunts as spurring on the 2013 government shutdown, his fledgling presidential candidacy had been suffering from an attention deficit even before it officially began on Monday.
The timing of the Texas senator’s announcement was intended to preempt the upcoming April entrance of several of his key competitors, but it was leveled squarely at fellow freshman Sen. Rand Paul, Ky., his most direct Republican rival. Cruz’s long shot for the Republican nomination in what is already (if not officially) a crowded field hinges on his ability to best Paul as the grassroots conservative candidate. In last month’s straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Cruz came in third, garnering only 11.5 percent of the vote, far behind Paul’s 26 percent and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s 21.4 percent, and barely edging the hardly viable Ben Carson. Even during Cruz’s big moment Monday, a camera shot during the speech captured audience members wearing red t-shirts that read: “Stand With Rand.”
Paul and Cruz have long been jockeying to be the “outsider” that could mount an anti-establishment challenge against the more mainstream candidacies of former Florida governor Jeb Bush and freshman Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. But not too far outside. In the current anxious threat environment with defense at the center of the news cycle, both Paul and Cruz have moved their national security positions toward the middle. Still, Paul’s reputation as the champion of civil liberties and Libertarian anti-interventionist leanings are easier to distinguish from the pack, while Cruz’s relatively hawkish positions sound closer to GOP national security veterans such as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
For his part, Cruz has said that he’s in an electoral sweet spot between Rand and the hawks. He has introduced legislation that would “immediately re-impose sanctions” and strengthen them against Iran, an approach that many have said would kill the negotiations. “Negotiating from strength — I believe in peace through strength,” Cruz told Defense One last month after Netanyahu broke with protocol in his address to Congress to rally support against the Obama administration’s diplomatic efforts. “But the Obama-Clinton foreign policy of leading from behind does not work, and weakness is provocative.”
In December, as Congress struggled yet again to pass must-pass appropriations and authorization legislation, Cruz agreed that political dysfunction is a top national security concern. But he placed the blame on Obama. “Yes, I agree that it is highly troubling to have a president who refuses to work with Congress,” he said.
“When it comes to national security, I believe we are going to see a vigorous 114th Congress,” he continued. “One of the most troubling aspects of the last six years is that America has receded from leadership in the world, and it has created a vacuum, and into that vacuum has stepped nations like Iran, like Russia, like China, it’s made the world much more dangerous.”
Cruz said Obama’s “reckless negotiation with the government of Iran” was “repeating the mistakes of the Clinton administration in the 1990s with North Korea.”
“ISIS is the face of evil,” he said. “It is a serious threat, but it should not cause us to lose sight that the threat of a nuclear Iran is far greater.”
Cruz’s decision to be the first official candidate out of the gate reflects the basic calculus that top funders are already lining up behind competitors, although he’s unlikely ever to compete evenly with Jeb Bush’s money-raising juggernaut. When Bush became the first candidate to announce he was “exploring” a presidential run in December, Cruz told Defense One, “Jeb Bush is a good man. I’m a big fan of Jeb Bush’s.”
“I think he was a good governor in Florida,” the senator said. “He’ll have to make a decision in the coming months whether or not he chooses to run for president. And if he does, then Republican primary voters will make the decision whether he should be the nominee.”
But Cruz said it wouldn’t change his own calculations, and gave a thinly veiled self-endorsement.
“I’ll say this: anyone who is thinking of running for president, be they a governor, be they a senator, I would encourage them to stand up and lead,” he said. “I would be thrilled if a year from now we had a half dozen Republicans all of whom were, as Reagan put it, ‘painting in bold colors, not pale pastels.’”
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