Rand Paul, Marco Rubio Exchange Barbs Over Cuba Policy Changes
Two potential candidates for the Republican nomination in 2016 traded barbs this week over the President's new policy toward Cuba.
Kentucky Senator Rand Paul’s open break with other Republicans, and other GOP 2016 contenders, over the President’s decision to open diplomatic relations with Cuba and drop some trade and travel restrictions along with that opening earned him a quick rebuke from fellow Republican Senator Marco Rubio that quickly developed into something of a Twitter war between the two politicians yesterday:
The first battle of the GOP primary began on radio and cable news, spilled over to Twitter and splashed across Facebook and the wider Internet, a preview of the Republican Party’s coming cage match over foreign policy.
First, on Thursday, Marco Rubio ripped into Rand Paul’s support for President Obama’s call to lift the five-decade embargo on Cuba.
“Like many people who have been opining, he has no idea what he’s talking about,” the hawkish Florida senator told Fox News’ Megyn Kelly.
Rubio was responding to this from his Senate colleague, and putative 2016 rival: “The 50-year embargo just hasn’t worked, if the goal was regime change, it sure doesn’t seem to be working,” the Kentucky senator said in a radio interview earlier in the day. “Probably, it punishes the people more than the regime because the regime can blame the embargo for hardship.”
Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, has emerged this week as the furious face of the GOP’s opposition to Obama’s opening to Cuba. While it does not lift the embargo — that would require congressional approval — the policy shift does ease restrictions and open diplomatic ties.
“The embargo is not what’s hurting the Cuban people, it’s the lack of freedom and the lack of competent leaders,” Rubio continued.
Beginning Friday morning, Senator Paul took to Twitter to respond to the Florida Senator:
Senator @marcorubio is acting like an isolationist who wants to retreat to our borders and perhaps build a moat. I reject this isolationism.
— Senator Rand Paul (@SenRandPaul) December 19, 2014
— Senator Rand Paul (@SenRandPaul) December 19, 2014
Senator Paul was slightly less direct in his response to Rubio in a Time Op-Ed, but it was clear who is referring to:
The 50-year embargo against Cuba has not worked. If the goal was regime change, then it sure does not seem to be working. It also hurts the people more than the regime, because the regime can blame the embargo for hardship.
Emotions understandably run high for those whose parents and grandparents had their land and their lives taken from them. But if our goal is to defeat Castro and defeat communism then perhaps we should step back and ask ourselves, “Has the embargo worked?” If we allow the passions to cool, maybe just maybe, we might conclude that trade is better than war and that capitalism wins every time a people get a chance to see its products.
Let’s hope cooler heads will ultimately prevail and we unleash a trade tsunami that washes the Castros once and for all into the sea.
As Daniel Larison notes, Senator Paul’s use of the “isolationist” jab against Senator Rubio is amusing because of the number of times that it he has falsely been accused of being an “isolationist merely for advocating a less interventionist foreign policy that concentrates more on diplomacy and opening barriers to trade than it does on military force, trying to undermine regimes, and bombing with indiscriminate drone strikes to achieve its goals. Indeed, in this particular area it seems to me that it is entirely fair to call Rubio something of an “iisolationist because he, like other supporters of an embargo that was imposed before either Senator Paul or Senator Rubio was even born that has utterly failed to achieve any of the purposes for which it was supposedly put in place. The Castro brothers remain in power. Cuba still does not have anything approaching a functioning democratic system. The state of human rights in the country is as atrocious as it has ever been, and there is no such thing as freedom of speech or of the press. To the extent that the embargo was meant to bring an end to any of these things it has, quite clearly, failed in its objectives. As Reason’s Matt Welch puts it, on balance it seems clear that Senator Paul has the better argument here.
There was, of course, a strong argument in favor of the embargo when the Cold War was in full swing and Cuba was acting as a de facto client state of our chief world adversary and helping to destabilize regimes in Central and South America and even Africa for a time. In the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse, though, and given the fact that the United States has open and indeed warm diplomatic relationships with a host of nations known to violate human rights either in the past or on a continuing basis, including China, Vietnam, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt to name just a few, the logic for maintaining the embargo simply doesn’t exist. At this point, it can only be said to exist because of domestic political concerns, specifically bowing to political pressure from the Cuban American community in Florida, and age old resentments against the Castro regime. At this point, those are the only reasons that people like Senator Rubio can seem to come up with for isolating the United States from Cuba, unlike every other country in the world, and as with any other form of isolationism the only people it hurts are the people of Cuba and the people of the United States.
Looking at this through a political lens, some are confused as to why Paul would pick this particular fight with the junior Senator from Florida. Allahpundit, for example, put it this way:
Why? Why, with the primary campaign just weeks away from going full tilt, would he suddenly refuse to pander to a position that probably 85 percent of the right-wingers he’s trying to woo hold? And not only is his position one that’s disfavored by the right, however ambivalent the rest of America might be about the embargo these days, it’s one that righties will forever associate with Obama and his foreign policy “legacy.” Paul may think he’s waging war on Rubio on behalf of libertarianism but I bet most conservatives will see it as him waging war on behalf of Obama. It doesn’t even make sense at the micro level: As Harry Enten explains, while Cuban-Americans generally may be more conflicted about the embargo than they used to be, Cuban-American Republicans in Florida aren’t.
“He believes in his position” is no answer; as I’ve explained, that’s never stopped Rand from moderating before. One Twitter pal theorized that maybe Paul hit hard here because he wanted to stand out in the field. But … that’s my point. He already stands out! He stands out so much on foreign policy that he’s spent two years trying to stand out less, knowing that it’s a potential liability for him. Another friend speculates that Paul likes the “you’re the real isolationist!” line so much that he couldn’t resist throwing it in Rubio’s face, even if it means stridently opposing conservative orthodoxy in this case. When Rubio or Jeb Bush calls him an isolationist at the first presidential debate next year, Rand now has a ready comeback. The problem there, though, is that it won’t just be Rubio or Bush who’s calling him that; it’ll be the entire field, Christie, Walker, Huckabee, you name it. If mainstream conservatives watch 20 different big-name Republican pols assure them that Paul’s dangerously naive on Cuba, how much counterweight will Paul saying “no, you’re the naive one!” really have? Worst of all, perhaps, Paul’s devoted the past year to building the case that, as a “realist,” he’s actually the true heir to Ronald Reagan on foreign policy, not Rubio and the rest of the superhawks. What’s his counter now, though, when Rubio reminds him that the Reagan administration kept the embargo in place? It feels like he’s blowing himself up here on what would otherwise have been a boutique issue in the primaries, except for one key primary where it really matters and Paul’s bizarrely on the wrong side of it.
Ian Tuttle raises a similar question, and is similarly confused as to why Paul would so deliberately step on what can fairly be considered a third rail in Florida politics, especially among the Cuban American Republican population.
In the end, of course, only Senator Paul can speak to why he chose to speak out on this issue in a way that it, as I said in my earlier post, quite contrary to where the majority of Republicans likely stand on this issue, but I can’t see why either Allahpundit or Tuttle are all that surprised that he did. After all, this is hardly the first time that the Senator has spoken out in a way that differentiates him from large segments of the Republican Party. Viewed from that perspective, it’s probable that Paul is saying something he actually believes here, which may be more than those of us who are usually used to viewing politics through an incredibly cynical lens can’t always relate to. No doubt, of course, the Senator is aware that he’s going against the GOP grain here just as he has in other areas of foreign policy over the past four years. As I’ve said before, this is something that Paul is likely to take a lot of heat for in the Presidential race should he actually decide to run, and I’m sure he’s aware of that as well. So why do it? Well, I think what we may be seeing here is the beginning of a campaign that is built on the twin pillars of standing up against a tide of GOP critics who are advocating policies that offer nothing more than more of the same failure and appealing to voters who don’t ordinarily vote in Republican primaries. Will it work? I don’t know, but it would be interesting to watch and if it leads to a real debate inside the Republican Party over foreign policy then let’s bring it on.