Vegas is the place to dethrone Trump.

Photographer: ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

Republican Hawks See Debate as Chance to Take Back Party

Josh Rogin is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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Tuesday’s presidential debate is as important for the future of the Republican Party’s identity as it is for the 2016 presidential race. Losing control of the party's message on national security, the establishment Republicans are determined to reassert their policies and eclipse the current front-runners.

The 2016 campaign has been overtaken by the anti-establishment elements of the Republican Party, using their influence during the primary season to push their candidates to the top of the polls. The Republican candidates who have fared best are those who have run not just against Washington, but also against their own party leadership. Donald Trump has been the leader of that trend, along with Ben Carson and Ted Cruz, who is rising in the polls.

That has meant criticizing the Republican foreign policy record, including the invasion of Iraq, support for the intervention in Libya, and the drive to topple Bashar al Assad in Syria.

Now, as the political conversation turns increasingly to how to keep the U.S. safe, the candidates who represent traditional Republican foreign policy are looking to take advantage. Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush and Chris Christie see the debate as a chance to re-establish the Republican mainstream positions and put the party back in its traditional, hawkish stance.

The effort to reframe the discussion has intensified since Cruz’s speech last Friday at the Heritage Foundation, where he tried to chart a third way somewhere between the isolationism and neoconservatism. He criticized George W. Bush’s "freedom agenda" and made the argument for supporting dictators like Assad and Libya’s Qaddafi.

In a series of articles, party elders called Cruz’s vision unsound, accused him of changing his positions to accommodate the politics of the moment, and disputed his contention that his views were in line with those of Israel’s leadership. The Wall Street Journal editorial page Monday questioned Cruz’s character.

On Sunday, Rubio argued on "Meet the Press" that he was not the “establishment” candidate, but went on to argue for a foreign policy that followed the traditional hawkish line that his party has supported over the years. He criticized Cruz as an “isolationist” and made fun of Cruz’s promise to “carpet bomb” the Islamic State. Rubio also pointed out that Cruz has supported lower defense spending and less sweeping authority for mass surveillance.

When it came to the other anti-establishment leading candidate, Donald Trump, Rubio made the experience argument.

“The most important thing a president will be is commander-in-chief,” said the first-term senator.  “And that requires having an understanding of the complex issues on foreign policy. Foreign policy presents us often with hard choices, not black or white choices.”

Several Republican Party operatives who were in Las Vegas for the debate told me that the problem was convincing voters that the substance matters more than the presentation on national security. Voters are looking for a clear, strong message and not necessarily detailed solutions to complex problems, like Jeb Bush’s plan for the Middle East.

There has always been a minority of Republican voters who supported more isolationist policies, but Trump and Cruz are dangerous to the orthodoxy because they are using their momentum to bring new groups of Republicans to a stance that will not fare well against Hillary Clinton's relatively hawkish foreign policy.

Some party insiders argue that whoever represents the Republican Party against Clinton would be wise to attack her foreign policy positions from the right, tying her to President Barack Obama's unsuccessful fight against the Islamic State. They point to data like the recent CNN/ORC poll, which reported that a majority of Americans now support sending ground troops to Iraq to fight the Islamic State.

In the last presidential cycle, the Republican Party flirted with a change of identity but eventually reverted back to its long-held stance: hawkish, pro-intervention, advocating democracy abroad and supporting an ever-growing national security state. This time around, that pattern will be difficult to repeat, because Trump and Cruz are preventing the party from settling on a clear message. Tuesday’s debate will be a key battle in that fight.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Josh Rogin at joshrogin@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net