Election 2020

In the Shadow of George W. Bush: Rubio and Cruz

Image courtesy AP Photo/Jeffrey Phelps.

The foreign policy scuffle between Florida Senator Marco Rubio and Texas Senator Ted Cruz formed the centerpiece of the fifth GOP debate — a result of the different lessons they learned from George W. Bush.

President George W. Bush left office seven years ago, but his shadow still weighs heavily on the Republican Party. His failures, along with those of President Barack Obama, arguably inspired the anti-establishment furor of 2015 — with media mogul Donald Trump leading the polls and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush floundering despite his money lead. The two rising challengers to Mr. Trump — Sen. Marco Rubio and Sen. Ted Cruz — represent two transformative approaches to the legacy of one of America’s most controversial leaders.

According to CBS, President George W. Bush left office with a depressing 22 percent approval rating, with 73 percent saying they disapproved of his performance as commander in chief. The unpopularity of the Iraq War and the housing market crash in 2008 propelled Barack Obama to power. But four years later, Bush’s legacy enjoyed an upswing, as his approval rating rose to nearly half in 2013.

This year, with the rise of the Islamic State, the continuing struggles of Obamacare, and a sluggish economic recovery, George W. Bush’s more famous policy positions — compassionate conservatism and a hawkish foreign policy — might just seem attractive once again.

According to The Federalist’s Ben Domenech, Florida Senator Marco Rubio has largely endorsed George W.’s old positions, giving the 2004 winning coalition a new face. Texas Senator Ted Cruz, by contrast, has taken a more nuanced position — opposing big government even when used for conservative aims, and supporting civil liberties over NSA surveillance.

What the Tea Party Learned from George W. Bush

In recent weeks, Rubio has taken shots at Cruz, calling the Texas senator weak on national defense and immigration. As Domenech notes, Cruz responded with a more nuanced attack, saying that Rubio has not learned from the errors of the George W. Bush administration.

The Tea Party, Domenech contends, was not just a reaction against the government largesse of Barack Obama; it also represented a populist movement against key mistakes of the Bush years. These fall into two broad categories: military adventurism and big government.

“The Bush administration was too optimistic about spreading democracy, and ought to have instead focused on simply killing bad guys,” Domenech explains. In fighting the “war on terror,” the government had indulged dangerous notions of nation-building and had embraced too much surveillance of American citizens.

The Tea Party also learned the dangers of big government — namely, that Washington picks winners and losers through crony capitalism and that the political system is too beholden to Wall Street and big business, no matter which party holds the reins. The Republican Party had decided to use government to help “our people,” instead of rolling back the entitlement state.

Rubio: Bush 3.0?

Rather than distance himself from George W. Bush’s approach to policy, Rubio appears to have adopted it, Domenech argues. On the foreign policy front, Rubio represents the neo-conservative wing of the party, even backing NSA surveillance. On domestic policy, his support for comprehensive immigration reform mirrors Bush, and he embraces the “reform conservatism” agenda — whose leading figures also crafted George W.’s “compassionate conservatism.”

Rubio’s foreign policy advisors read like a “who’s who” of prominent neocons — from the Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol, to hawkish former senator Jim Talent, former Reagan official Elliott Abrams, historian Robert Kagan, and former George W. Bush national security advisor Stephen Hadley. The Florida senator has also turned to the John Hay Initiative, a group founded by former George W. Bush administration officials Eric Edelman and Eliot Cohen, for advice.

Rubio has courted hawkish supporters of Israel, such as Sheldon Adelson and hedge fund billionaire Paul Singer. Norman Braman, a Florida businessman with a hawkish attitude toward Middle East policy, has been the “single-largest backer of Rubio’s presidential campaign.”

The Florida senator’s campaign slogan — “A New American Century” — can be taken as a throwback to the neoconservative Project for the New American Century (PNAC), which played a decisive role in agitating for U.S. intervention in the Middle East before 9/11 and leading up to the Iraq War.

On domestic policy, Rubio evokes favorable comparisons to former President Bill Clinton. Clinton famously used the strategy of “triangulation” to find a common governing agenda acceptable to Republicans and Democrats. Rubio plays to the different factions of the GOP in the same manner.

“Rubio’s balancing act is to offer conservative with a human face while at the same time conveying strength and resolve to the base that he will be strong and reliable,” explains William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. The idea of “reforming” conservatism to make it more “human” smacks of a return to George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism.”

Indeed, Rubio has publicly embraced ideas in the “Reformicon” movement — a hodge-podge of conservative thinkers who arguably follow the Bush tack in using government to prop up Republican voter blocs, rather than cutting the size and scope of government.

All this dabbling with Bush’s legacy brings to mind a pertinent question — wasn’t Marco Rubio elected as a Tea Party conservative? According to Domenech, that has always been a misconception. Rubio endorsed Mike Huckabee in 2008, and he ran against Charlie Crist more as a social conservative government reformer than a bold government-slashing Tea Partier, but the Tea Party wave in 2010 propelled him into office.

“Would Rubio’s nomination indicate that the Republican Party had…not learned many lessons from the George W. Bush years?” Domenech asks. “Or would it possibly indicate the lesson they’ve learned is all about Bush’s style, not substance?” This may be a bit harsh on Rubio, but these questions have some merit. Rubio may represent a newer, more sophisticated version of George W. Bush. Depending on your perspective, that may be a good thing.

The “Goldilocks” Policy of Ted Cruz

Texas Senator Ted Cruz, by contrast, seems to have taken many lessons from the Bush years to heart, and altered his policy accordingly. Cruz has actively presented a “Goldilocks” position on foreign policy — saying that he will take the best of interventionism and isolationism. On domestic policy, Cruz is a traditional conservative, but argues with a nuance that just might appeal beyond the traditional conservative base.

In a foreign policy speech at the Heritage Foundation on Thursday, Cruz unveiled his triangulation — calling for an assertive war against radical Islamic terror while upholding Americans’ civil liberties and refraining from the temptation of nation-building. The Texas senator said that, as with the Communism of the Soviet Union, radical Islamic terror could be defeated by American strength — but not in the way that Bush or Obama tried to fight it.

“There are some on both the right and the left who want to exploit the current crisis by calling on Americans to surrender our constitutional liberties as the only way to ensure our safety,” Cruz declared. “Hoarding tens of billions of records of ordinary citizens didn’t stop Fort Hood, it didn’t stop Boston, it didn’t stop Garland, and it failed to stop the San Bernardino plot.” He argued that the USA Freedom Act, which ended this surveillance, would enable intelligence groups to focus on real threats, thus actually empowering America in the war on terror.

Cruz also warned against a desire to prioritize democracy over American interests abroad. While America should support democracies which share our values — like Israel — “we cannot treat democracy promotion as an ultimate objective,” the senator declared. He pointed to former dictators like Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya as useful allies whose downfall led to the rise of more dangerous governments which presented more of a threat to American interests.

Elsewhere, Cruz has argued that Rubio and the “Washington neo-cons” have “consistently mis-perceived the threat of radical Islamic terrorism and have advocated military adventurism that has had the effect of benefiting radical Islamic terrorists.”

As Domenech argues, Cruz “seems to believe the Bush years taught us that the public is neither pro- or anti-interventionist, nor are they pro- or anti-democracy agenda — they are mostly just for winning, by which they mean destroying our enemies.”

On domestic policy, Cruz proves a traditional conservative — with a few small but notable differences from Rubio, such as opposition to cronyist sugar subsidies (which Rubio supports). Domenech argues that Cruz’s “secret weapon” may be an ability to “make moderate-ish sounding arguments for very conservative positions,” as shown in his attacks on crony capitalism — an issue which also moves some on the left.

Washington insiders may think the country sees Cruz the same way Senate Republican leaders see Cruz — a stick-in-the-mud conservative who “does not play well with others” and is only out for himself. As Domenech argues, this is an oversimplification.

The 2016 Republican primary is still young, but as voting nears, Republicans will begin to consider the serious policy differences of each candidate. This may weaken Donald Trump’s support, but it is unlikely to bolster Jeb Bush, whose failures seem to indicate the low stock of the Bush dynasty. Rubio may gain steam with an updated version of George W.’s positions, but Cruz’s triangulation shows a unique promise. Only time — and a confusing jumble of state-by-state primaries — will tell.