Marco Rubio makes a point during the CNN Republican presidential debate at the Venetian Hotel & Casino on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2015, in Las Vegas.

Marco Rubio makes a point during the CNN Republican presidential debate at the Venetian Hotel & Casino on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2015, in Las Vegas. AP Photo/John Locher

Tough Talk vs. Military Muscle

Cruz and Rubio duke it out over how to deal with ISIS.

In a de­bate that be­came something of a ref­er­en­dum on former Pres­id­ent George W. Bush’s in­ter­ven­tion­ist for­eign policy, the highest-pro­file com­batants were two fresh­man sen­at­ors:  Marco Ru­bio and Ted Cruz.  Ru­bio, in line with Bush’s leg­acy, called for a more ro­bust Amer­ic­an role in the Middle East and ag­gress­ive coun­terter­ror­ism meas­ures at home.  Cruz, des­pite em­ploy­ing fiery rhet­or­ic, ad­voc­ated a more lim­ited Amer­ic­an role over­seas while de­fend­ing his vote for le­gis­la­tion that cur­tailed the gov­ern­ment’s bulk col­lec­tion of metadata.

The big ques­tion after last night’s de­bate: Will the pub­lic’s mood in the wake of the Par­is and San Bern­ardino at­tacks trans­late in­to an in­creased ap­pet­ite for mil­it­ary in­ter­ven­tion?  Or will cri­ti­ciz­ing Pres­id­ent Obama and sound­ing tough on ter­ror be enough to sat­is­fy a con­ser­vat­ive GOP elect­or­ate clam­or­ing for the ut­ter de­feat of IS­IS?

If tone and bluster are enough to sat­is­fy the base, Cruz will have emerged from this de­bate in strong shape. But if the Re­pub­lic­an party is still a hawk­ish party in deed – as the latest round of polls sug­gest – there were clear signs that Cruz’s re­cord is riddled with vul­ner­ab­il­it­ies that Ru­bio is well-equipped to ex­ploit.

Cruz said he was con­tent to de­pend on pun­ish­ing air­power to take out IS­IS, while Ru­bio in­sisted that ground troops would be ne­ces­sary to win the war. At one point, Cruz paused and offered a death stare to prove that he was gutsy enough to take on the IS­IS “bad guys.” In­stead of de­fend­ing his vote against the Na­tion­al De­fense Au­thor­iz­a­tion Act fund­ing the mil­it­ary, Cruz dodged the sub­ject and called Ru­bio’s cri­ti­cism “Al­in­sky-like at­tacks.”  These are cru­cial na­tion­al se­cur­ity is­sues where he and Ru­bio dis­agree – and Cruz found more in com­mon with Sen. Rand Paul, whose own stand­ing col­lapsed when his non-in­ter­ven­tion­ist ap­proach lost fa­vor with the GOP elect­or­ate.

A close read­ing of the polls sug­gests Cruz is vul­ner­able on this front. A whop­ping 58 per­cent of Re­pub­lic­ans now say that ter­ror­ism is their top con­cern, 46 points more than the eco­nomy or jobs, ac­cord­ing to this week’s NBC/Wall Street Journ­alpoll. In the sur­vey, 55 per­cent of voters put se­cur­ity ahead of pri­vacy. And a 42 per­cent plur­al­ity of voters fa­vors a com­bin­a­tion of ground forces and air strikes, six points more than the num­ber who fa­vor only air strikes.   Among Re­pub­lic­ans, the gap is even great­er.

“I prom­ise you the next time there is an at­tack on this coun­try, the first thing people are go­ing to want to know is: ‘Why didn’t we know about it and why didn’t we stop it?’” Ru­bio said, out­lining a theme that will surely be re­peated in the weeks to come.

Cruz, for his part, has been pre­par­ing for this for­eign policy show­down.  In a  speech last week at the Her­it­age Found­a­tion, he at­temp­ted to forge a “third way” ap­proach to for­eign policy. He slammed Bush’s ef­forts to pro­mote demo­cracy around the world, while em­phas­iz­ing that he’s more ser­i­ous about Is­lam­ic ter­ror­ism than the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion.  Last night, he cited Ru­bio’s sup­port for oust­ing Liby­an dic­tat­or Muam­mar Qad­dafi as an ex­ample of the sen­at­or’s poor judg­ment.  In a re­cent in­ter­view with Bloomberg, he dis­missed Ru­bio’s for­eign policy as “mil­it­ary ad­ven­tur­ism” and tried to tie him to the “ag­gress­ive neo­cons” with­in the Re­pub­lic­an party.

Cruz’s bet is that Re­pub­lic­ans are weary of the for­eign policies of both Bush and Obama, and that his more meas­ured ap­proach is in line with the GOP mood.  Ru­bio, mean­while, is of­fer­ing a re­turn to the more-mus­cu­lar na­tion­al se­cur­ity policies of the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion – al­though he takes care not to men­tion the former pres­id­ent by name.

It’s aw­fully iron­ic that at a time when Re­pub­lic­an voters have grown nos­tal­gic for the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion’s “war on ter­ror,” it’s Ru­bio and not the former pres­id­ent’s broth­er who’s cap­it­al­iz­ing on the party’s mood.  And it’s an­oth­er Tex­an who’s push­ing for a more re­strained for­eign policy – a po­s­i­tion that was once em­braced by George W. Bush, but aban­doned in the wake of the 9/11 at­tacks that re­shaped his party for good.