On the campaign trail, presidential candidates deliver a lot of canned lines and recite a lot of speeches from memory. Marco Rubio in particular has been criticized for sounding overly scripted in debates, responding to questions with paragraphs that could’ve been plucked from the speeches he delivers on the stump.
His remarks before the Republican Jewish Coalition on Thursday were a little bit different. They reflected an understanding this particular group’s desire to expose anti-Semitism on the left and the right and the lack of moral clarity — that was a phrase he used again and again — brought to bear on American policy. This is a group that equates anti-Israel sentiment with anti-Semitism, and Rubio essentially did the same.
The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement that aims to weaken Israel’s economy in order to wrench territorial and political concessions from the Jewish state doesn’t often make national headlines, but fighting it has become a major cause within the American pro-Israel community, and was a focus of Rubio’s speech. Liberal and left-wing university students, in particular, have called on college presidents to pull Israeli products out of dining halls, and Rubio pledged to push university officials to “speak out with clarity and force on this issue the same way they speak out against racism and other forms of bigotry.”
“I will make clear,” he said, “that calling for the destruction of Israel is the same as calling for the death of Jews.”
Rubio also trained his fire on members of his own party, in particular on Kentucky senator Rand Paul and Texas senator Ted Cruz, whom he tacitly suggested had pushed an isolationist view and voted to gut financial assistance for Israeli defense initiatives. It’s the latest attack in an ongoing back-and-forth between Rubio and Cruz on matters of national security that is only likely to intensify in the coming weeks, as the caucuses and primaries draw closer. “Those who speak about their pro-Israel views but carelessly support a gutting of our international-affairs budget, including assistance to Israel, or who vote against legislation funding U.S.-Israel defense programs, need to check their priorities,” he said.
As Michael Warren at the Weekly Standard notes, Cruz supported Paul’s 2013 budget that cut international aid, including to Israel, and has voted against the annual National Defense Authorization Act, which among other things helps to fund Israeli missile-defense programs. Cruz also has a civil-libertarian streak — he talks often of the National Security Agency’s metadata program, derisively referring to Barack Obama listening in on people’s phone calls, which the program does not allow the president or other government officials to do. And he supported the USA Patriot Act, which reformed that program. At the same time, Cruz is a strong supporter of Israel and has made particular efforts to court Jewish voters. He’ll be in New Jersey tonight for a fundraiser hosted by an Orthodox Jewish supporter.
But Cruz is not often vulnerable to attacks from his right, and Rubio is doing his best to make him so by exploiting the tension between Cruz’s advocacy for a strong national defense, support for Israel, and the right to privacy. This is a battle we will see a lot more of between now and when the party decides on a nominee.