When the National Interest asked me to write a piece about last night’s presidential debate, I considered sending over something wholly unrelated to the topic at hand—my mother’s chowder recipe, an unnecessarily strident polemic against Rutherford B. Hayes, a 15,000-word critical analysis of a Boxcar Children novel. Anything to avoid watching another meeting of the Republican candidates. What could they possibly say that wasn’t said, you know, two weeks ago?
I was happy to be proven wrong. Last night was supposed to be about economics, hosted as it was by the stock hawks at Fox Business. But the most fascinating exchanges ended up focusing on foreign policy.
It began when Senator Rand Paul criticized Senator Marco Rubio for supporting a trillion dollars in new military expenditures. Rubio then switched on the autopilot and called Paul a “committed isolationist.” This elicited a laugh from Paul, who continued to press Rubio on how new Pentagon spending that wasn’t paid for could be considered fiscally conservative. Rubio declared that he wanted America to be “the strongest military power in the world.” He won on sizzle, but Paul won on substance.
Ted Cruz then interjected with a middle ground: “You can do that and pay for it. You can do that and also be fiscally responsible.” Cruz has long tried to stake out a waypoint between Paul-style realism and Rubio-style neoconservatism, even when it’s sheathed in fog. He’s also been making a transparent play for Paul’s libertarian-leaning voter base ever since the Kentucky senator started lagging in the polls. Paul probably fended him off last night, but the combative Cruz made his presence felt. He had a good debate.
Foreign policy came up again in the form of Vladimir Putin, with Donald Trump touting the benefits of haggling with Russia. But then he made a surprisingly cogent case for staying neutral in the Syrian Civil War: “Assad is a bad guy. But we have no idea who the so-called rebels…nobody knows who they are.” This set up an unlikely tag team between the nationalist Trump and the libertarian Paul, as the latter called arming the Syrian rebels “the dumbest, most foolhardy notion” and correctly pointed out that the other candidates’ lazy endorsement of a Syrian no-fly zone would mean shooting down Russian planes. Then they both lashed out at Carly Fiorina for interrupting so much.
I’ve commented to friends that I wouldn’t mind seeing a debate limited to Paul, Rubio and Fiorina, because they’re the only three who seem schooled on foreign policy. The biggest takeaway from last night is that it may be time to cross Rubio off the list. The Florida senator placed near the top and may very well win the Republican nomination, but his answers rarely strayed outside hoary talking points. After Paul challenged him on Syria, Rubio responded by babbling about Israel and then warning that “ISIS is in Libya.” Indeed they are! And the primary reason for that is the Obama administration’s overthrow of Moammar Gaddafi, which squashed any hope of restoring civil order in Libya. That operation was supported by a certain Florida senator because, as he put it back in 2011, “peaceful countries run by people that are in search of prosperity are not out there attacking the United States, are not out there harboring terrorists.” Today Libya is embroiled in chaos and swarming with Islamic State fighters.
Rubio will never face serious cross-examination from Hillary Clinton on Libya—she was just as pro-war as he was—but perhaps he’ll continue to struggle under scrutiny from his fellow Republicans. And that’s the second big takeaway from the debate: Rand Paul is back. Maybe momentarily, maybe too late, but enough to make a splash and reassure his antsy libertarian supporters. Paul even managed to best his old sparring partner Trump when he wryly pointed out that China wasn’t included in the president’s trade deal, as Trump had implied. The audience laughed and applauded.
So for at least a few brief moments, the Republican Party’s foreign policy was wrested from the hands of George W. Bush. That’s progress. Speaking of Bushes, did anyone catch sight of Jeb last night? I think he forgot to show up.
Matt Purple is the deputy editor of Rare Politics.
Image: Flickr/Gage Skidmore