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Can Ted Cruz's hawkish populism actually win?

Ted Cruz.
Ted Cruz.
Scott Olson/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

The Republican foreign policy debate usually gets described as a divide between Rand Paul and ... basically everyone else. But Ted Cruz wants to change that, positioning himself as a sort of "third way" between Paul's non-interventionism and Bush-style neoconservatism. Cruz's approach seems like it should be popular, but it also illustrates one of the central problems in his candidacy: there isn't really a natural Cruz constituency.

Cruz's position on the use of force is hawkish: he wants the US to be far more aggressive than the Obama administration has been when facing threats. But he's also skeptical of nation building and democracy promotion; he's less comfortable with campaigns to topple authoritarian regimes in places like Syria than some other members of his party. He broke his view down into three principles in a Tuesday Daily Caller interview:

  1. Any intervention "should begin with a clearly stated objective at the outset. It should be directly tied to US national security."
  2. "We should use overwhelming force to that objective. We should not have rules of engagement that tie the hands of our soldiers and sailors and airmen and Marines."
  3. "Third, we should get the heck out ... It is not the job of the US military to engage in nation building to turn foreign countries into democratic utopias."

Basically, the US should hit its own enemies hard and not worry all that much about dealing with the consequences for the locals.

It's an argument finely calibrated to today's Republican party. Cruz's instinctive hawkishness fits with the base's mood, which has become increasingly enamored of American military interventions since the ISIS crisis began. However, there's also not a whole lot of public appetite for another massive investment of US lives and resources in another extended foreign war. Clearly opposing one, even when it's unlikely, is a safe way to differentiate yourself from more conventional neoconservatives.

You can see echoes of this in some prominent Republican foreign policy figures, like former UN Ambassador John Bolton (who Cruz says is one of three foreign policy figures he trusts most). In a smart column, the Washington Examiner's Phil Klein argues it's more likely to catch on in the GOP than Rand Paul's non-interventionism.

But Cruz's foreign policy position also reflects a central problem with his candidacy: his profound isolation inside the party.

There isn't really a major organized movement that likes Cruz's position. More conventional neoconservatives, like Marco Rubio, are vying for support from the vast bulk of the conservative foreign policy apparatus. Paul appeals to a dissident libertarian-conservative movement — one that has its own intellectual tradition and turned out in large numbers for his father, Congressman Ron Paul.

There isn't, by contrast, a natural home for Cruz's position. The fact that it might be base-friendly isn't enough: at this stage in the primary, it's more important to garner support from elites and institutions that are willing to work for you than to propose positions that poll well. Say what you will about Paul's libertarians being marginalized in the GOP, but at least they're an organized movement.

Cruz's ideas might be able to eventually shape the Republican foreign policy debate, as Klein suggests. But barring a Cruz victory in the primary, that'd probably take a concerted effort to push them on his part over the course of years. In the short term, he doesn't actually get a lot out of advocating for them.