Senator Rubio has criticized Senator Cruz for voting to “weaken U.S. intelligence,” and other Cruz critics–including the inveterate ones at the Wall Street Journal–are hitting him on national security. I don’t think the criticisms are especially persuasive, or politically effective. The two leading specific criticisms are that he opposed intervention in Syria in 2013 and that he favored reforms to the National Security Agency’s surveillance of metadata; the overarching criticism is that he has opportunistically positioned himself between the GOP’s most hawkish and dovish factions; and the political bet is that in the aftermath of the Paris attacks Cruz’s positions will look worse.
The last point is the crux of the matter: The argument that Cruz is a dangerous, posturing squish on national security assumes that there’s a simple, once-and-for-all choice: Be a hawk or a dove, and stay there on whatever discrete issues happen to come up. There’s no legitimate position between John McCain and Rand Paul: Anyone who claims to take one is just playing a political game. Never mind that most Republicans probably fit in that wide space.
On Syria, let’s recall that Obama was proposing pinprick strikes to punish rather than overthrow the Syrian regime. There wasn’t much of a strategic rationale beyond making the president’s words count for something. I’m sure someone could argue that going along with Obama would have somehow weakened Isis, but that’s entirely speculative. In the event, such hawks as Max Boot concluded that the president’s plans would “only make the U.S. appear to be a weak, posturing giant.” Elizabeth Cheney and John Bolton both opposed Obama. Were they too being opportunistic? Did they prove themselves untrustworthy on national security?
Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R., Wisc.) sponsored both the Patriot Act passed by Congress after the September 11 attacks and the NSA reforms Cruz is now being criticized for supporting. Was he, too, just playing politics? Or is it, perhaps, possible that he favors making sure intelligence agencies have the powers they need and work under some limits and constraints? Maybe Cruz and Sensenbrenner are wrong on the specifics. But you can’t just dismiss the specifics by invoking the need for strong intelligence agencies.
And I don’t think Republican primary voters are going to be scared off of voting for someone because he agreed with Bolton on Syria and the sponsor of the Patriot Act about the NSA.