NEW YORK – As Republicans start to debate foreign policy in advance of the 2016 election, it’s shaping up to be a fight between Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul and everyone else. Until recently, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas was on Paul’s side, but that close relationship is fraying.
The Paul-Cruz alliance became evident last summer after New Jersey’s Gov. Chris Christie dismissed libertarian concerns about foreign policy, leading to an acrimonious back-and-forth between Christie and Paul. At the time, Cruz sided with Paul. Cruz had supported Paul’s filibuster over drone strikes earlier in the year, and the two senators would later oppose military intervention in Syria.
Signs of a rupture between the two came this week, when Paul accused Cruz of misrepresenting his foreign-policy views by saying that Ronald Reagan believed in a larger role for the U.S. in the world than Paul did. Paul retorted that he was “well within the Republican tradition” on foreign policy. He favors sanctions against Russia, he noted. Also this week, he wrote an op-ed article pointing out that Reagan withdrew U.S. forces from Lebanon and negotiated with the Soviets.
Paul’s touchiness is more interesting than his argument. Noting that Reagan sometimes did dovish things does not weaken Cruz’s (correct) contention that Reagan was more hawkish than Paul is. While Russia was planning to move into Crimea, Paul was warning that U.S. officials should not “tweak Russia all the time” and should instead “be respectful.” Other Republicans have not said anything similar, and it is difficult to imagine Reagan — who believed it was important to call out the Kremlin — saying it either.
So why doesn’t Paul just say that circumstances have changed since the 1980s and our policies should change, too? Why does he protest when someone points out the obvious?
I suspect Paul’s problem is simple: For all the talk of rising Republican isolationism, he knows full well that he is an outlier in his party. That’s why Cruz’s mild words of differentiation have such sting.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist.