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Ted Cruz's bizarre fight with the GOP over women and the draft, explained

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Ted Cruz spent the final days of his campaign for the New Hampshire primary, in which he finished third, speaking out against an important issue: the risk that the government might use the draft to force innocent girl children into single combat against psychotic supervillains thrice their size.

"I'm the father of two little girls," he told an appreciative crowd on Monday in Peterborough, "and I love those girls with all of my heart. They are capable of doing anything their hearts desire. But the idea that their government would forcibly put them in a foxhole with a 220-pound psychopath trying to kill them doesn't make any sense."

Indeed it does not. Cruz's daughters are both under 10 years old, and we can all agree that it would be bad for our nation’s security to switch from our current all-volunteer military to one composed of elementary-school-age conscripts. And while Cruz appears to be under the impression that foxholes are some sort of extra-super-real MMA cage for the battlefield, the whole point of foxholes, in fact, is that you don’t share them with the enemy. If there’s a 220-pound psychopath in your foxhole, you’re doing it wrong.

But though it may sound like Cruz added a new issue to his platform after staying up too late one night flipping back and forth between Spartacus and Mad Max: Fury Road, there is indeed an actual policy dispute here, and Cruz's strategy is a surprisingly savvy way for him to pick a fight with the establishment candidates he's running against in the GOP primary.

His anecdote is a way for him to come out swinging against Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and Marco Rubio over a legitimately contentious issue within the party: whether women should be eligible for the draft. And it's a way for him to pretend to be talking about military policy when he's really talking about something else: traditional gender norms under threat from political correctness.

This is Ted Cruz's favorite kind of fight

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The Republican candidates' fight over whether women should be drafted started with a whimper, not a bang. During the Republican debate on Saturday, ABC's Martha Raddatz asked Rubio and Bush if women should be required to sign up for the selective service, and thus become eligible for the draft, now that combat positions in the US military have been opened to women.

Both men brushed aside the question, saying that of course women should be eligible for the draft now that they're eligible for combat, before moving on to a more general insistence on the importance of a strong military. Christie jumped in unprompted to concur, arguing that the GOP needs to make sure that "women in this country understand anything they can dream, anything that they want to aspire to, they can do" — including fighting for their country.

Cruz was silent on this during the debate, but afterward he became a vocal critic of his opponents' stance on the issue. During his stump speech the next day, he called the idea of drafting women "nuts" and "immoral":

I have to admit, as I was sitting there listening to that conversation, my reaction was, "Are you guys nuts?" Listen, we have had enough with political correctness, especially in the military. Political correctness is dangerous. And the idea that we would draft our daughters to forcibly bring them into the military and put them in close combat I think is wrong, it is immoral, and if I am president, we ain’t doing it.

He then tied the issue to his feelings of protectiveness over his own daughters, articulating his darkly fanciful hypothetical about the government forcing them into a foxhole with "a 220-pound psychopath trying to kill them."

Cruz was thus able to position himself as breaking with the Republican establishment — his favorite kind of fight — and doing so in a way that portrayed the GOP as having forgotten traditional conservative values.

Rubio, Bush, and Christie stuck to the party line: When it comes to gender, equality of opportunity matters, the selective service is a non-issue because the US isn't going to reinstate the draft, and the real concern here is the need to strengthen the military.

When faced with a question about the military, they gave an answer about the military. But Cruz gave, if belatedly, an answer that was not about the military at all.

For Cruz, it was a terrifying example of the way this country is heading in the wrong direction. In his telling, talking about women's rights or the relative strength of the military is a distraction from the real issue: political correctness.

Cruz's argument is really about gender norms, not the military

There is a version of the argument over women and combat that focuses on whether it is dangerous to have women fighting alongside men because it might undermine the effectiveness of the military. (Studies suggest it does not.)

That's a discussion that has gotten fairly heavy coverage in recent months as the military weighed whether to allow women in combat roles. Rubio and Bush gestured at that in the debate, referencing the need to ensure that the US has a strong military that isn't undermined by politicized decision-making.

But that's not the debate Cruz is having. In his telling, this isn't a question about the military at all — it's about the changing role of women in society, and why he believes those "politically correct" changes hurt everyone, including women.

In that way, this debate mirrors the dynamic of the GOP primary more broadly. Establishment candidates like Rubio, Bush, and Christie have tended to focus on specific policies they want to enact, and specific policies President Obama has embraced that they don't agree with.

Outsider candidates like Cruz and Trump are making a very different argument: that America as a whole is changing in ways that are terribly dangerous, and that what this country really needs is a politician who is aware enough to recognize that danger and strong enough to put a stop to it.

That argument varies in its details, but the central message is always the same: In America, we have traditional ways of doing things and traditional roles that make that possible. Those traditions are what make America a great country. "Politically correct" forces of change are undermining those traditions in ways that are terribly threatening to this nation.

When you see this pattern, Cruz's opposition to women in the draft — and his bizarre warning about foxholes — seems practically inevitable.

Trump has been the most obvious about employing this strategy, but Cruz has used it as well, most notably when he said in the December debate that political correctness was "killing people" by contributing to terrorist attacks by Islamic extremists.

Cruz is making a similar argument here: that our society protects women such as his daughters by keeping them out of combat; and that changing that tradition by including women in the draft is therefore not progress towards women's equality, but a dangerous deviation from America's core values that leaves women worse off.

Why this is all centered on a hypothetical draft that will never happen

Even once you understand why the candidates are advancing these arguments, one question remains: why the draft?

After all, the US hasn't had the draft since the early 1970s. There is no sign that it's going to return anytime soon. As a practical matter, this issue is a pile of nothing: It doesn't matter much if women are included in the selective service, because no one's going to get drafted anyway, male or female.

But talking about the draft is really a way to talk about the role of women in the military, and specifically women in combat.

Candidates cannot really argue directly against women volunteering to fight for their country. This would risk seeming disrespectful to troops or veterans — not a good look for any presidential candidate, but especially not for a Republican. And now that the military has made all combat jobs open to women, saying women shouldn't be in combat would require contradicting senior military officials, which GOP candidates are not about to do.

Discussing the hypothetical future draft instead of the actual present-day military neatly avoids those problems. By focusing on women unwillingly conscripted into fighting, Cruz can recast them as helpless victims instead of heroes. And by focusing on a decision that has not been made yet (whether to include women in the draft), he sidesteps the potential for disagreeing with military leaders.

In other words, talking about the draft lets Cruz twist a social change that expands women's opportunities into something frightening that will endanger innocents — unless Ted Cruz can save them.

The norm of protecting women from harm is a powerful one that resonates with a lot of people — just look at the box office receipts for movies like Taken. Wanting to keep vulnerable loved ones safe is, after all, a universally understood feeling. Cruz is cleverly tapping into that. But instead of promising to protect innocent and helpless women from Eastern European kidnappers, he's promising to protect them from political correctness.

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