Rancho Mirage, California
Three top Republican senators joined top center-right donors Sunday evening for a lively, informal discussion on politics and policy to cap off a weekend that effectively marks the kickoff of the 2016 presidential primary. In oversized white chairs on stage at the Ritz Carlton Rancho Mirage, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio fielded questions for nearly 90 minutes from Jonathan Karl of ABC News, who capably pushed the potential candidates for responses on a wide range of issues.
The discussion came as part of a weekend seminar for wealthy conservatives and libertarians sponsored by Charles and David Koch and was livestreamed by ABC News.
There were few differences between the three senators over the first half of the discussion, which focused largely on domestic policy. On tax policy, none of the three said they would take the deal offered to GOP primary candidates in 2012 – $10 in spending cuts for every $1 of tax hikes. Cruz mocked the premise and suggested that it’s a question that only the media love. Rubio argued that even with the kind of cuts and tax hikes the question assumes, the U.S. government couldn’t “set aside” the looming entitlement crisis. Paul used the session to urge Republicans in Washington to take a bolder approach to tax reform, saying that if the GOP spends its time just fighting for “revenue neutral tax reform” he might as well return to his medical practice in Kentucky.
If the forum was characterized by agreement on domestic policy issues, the stark differences between Paul and Rubio on foreign policy were obvious. Karl asked specifically about Cuba policy and noted that Paul has voiced support for the Obama administration’s new approach. In an argument that echoes Obama’s, Paul argued that it’s time for a change after fifty years of a failed Cuba embargo. As he has before, Paul once again suggested that those who disagree with him are driven primarily by “emotion.” Rubio countered by accusing Paul – and Obama – of misunderstanding the purpose of the embargo, noting that the Castro regime confiscated property of many Americans during the revolution. Cruz, for his part, reinforced Rubio’s arguments and cited his family’s ties to Cuba.
The sharpest differences came during the discussion of Iran. Paul again supported the Obama administration’s case that even talking about additional sanctions could threaten the delicate talks. Invoking Ronald Reagan and the Soviet Union, Paul touted the benefits of talking to your enemies and suggested that Cruz and Rubio were out of step with the Republican icon. Rubio scoffed at the suggestion that triggered sanctions are too tough. The Obama administration, he argued, is too solicitous of the Iranian regime. It’s hard to have serious negotiations with the mullahs, Rubio added, in part because of their apocalyptic views of a world that fails to embrace Islam.
If the first half of the discussion was a draw, Rubio stood out in the discussion of foreign policy and national security. It was clear that he has a command of the issues that far surpasses both Paul and Cruz – a fact that’s perhaps not surprising given Rubio’s service on both the Senate Foreign Relations committee and the Senate Intelligence Committee. Rubio demonstrated a fluency on matters of national security that one might expect from a senator who has been in Washington much longer than four years.
Cruz hasn’t focused on national security issues the way Rubio has, but articulated positions that put him squarely in the mainstream of Republican thinking on those issues, and did so in a way that distinguished him from the views of his friend and frequent ally, Paul.
Paul showed no reluctance embracing the positions of the Obama administration, even before an audience that was very skeptical of the case he made. Both at the forum here and more generally, Paul is offering a less-crazy and more politically saleable version of the non-interventionism championed by his father. While the media have long predicted an emerging non-interventionist wing of the GOP, there did not appear to be many sympathetic to Paul’s case, with audible opposition to his arguments on Cuba and, in particular, on Iran.