Consider This A Warning: The Republican Primaries Have Already Begun

Thomas Warns*

Republicans have already begun their quadrennial battle over Ronald Reagan’s legacy. It seems that with less than two years to go before Iowa and New Hampshire choose the next Presidential candidate, the frontrunners within the GOP have already begun a tug of war over who will bear the standard as the next Reagan.

Two of the frontrunners are Senators Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, according to a Conservative Political Action Conference straw poll. The CPAC straw poll placed Rand Paul first with 31% of the vote, followed by Ted Cruz in a distant second place with 11%. Of course one can question how closely this particular conference mirrors the true GOP primary electorate, considering Barry Carson finished third with 9% of the vote and only 30% of the attendees responded that marijuana should be illegal in all cases. Still, those are the numbers we have to work at.

Sensing that the two will be juxtaposed frequently over the next two years, Senator Cruz decided to fire the opening salvo. He declared that the United States has a “responsibility to defend our values.” He further added that we should be reluctant to deploy military force abroad, but that we should remain play a “vital role, just as Ronald Reagan did.” Senator Cruz has made it clear in no uncertain terms that he is more hawkish than the libertarian-leaning Senator Paul, though less hawkish than Senator John McCain.

Senator Paul fired back with a scathing op-ed on Breitbart which failed to mention Mr. Cruz even once but was unquestionably aimed at him. The piece opens rather bluntly: “Every Republican likes to think he or she is the next Ronald Reagan. Some who say this do so for lack of their own ideas and agenda.” He then warns about people turning Reagan into something he wasn’t to serve their political agenda, before adding in a later interview with Sean Hannity that he believes in “peace through strength,” yes – just like Reagan.

The argument to a certain extent speaks more to Reagan – and what to look for in a Presidential candidate – that it does about either of the 2016 frontrunners. By and large, more hawkish Republicans like Senator Cruz and more dovish Republicans like Senator Paul can both point credibly to President Reagan’s acts in office to support their stances. On the one hand, Senator Cruz can point to President Reagan’s tough talk against the “Evil Empire,” or his willingness to intervene in a variety of overseas affairs. On the other hand, Senator Paul can credibly point out, as he does in the op-ed, that President Reagan received substantial criticism from Republican hawks when he agreed to meet with Mikhail Gorbachev or when he pulled the U.S. out of Lebanon following the bloodshed of the Beirut barracks bombing.

The reason they can both point is because Reagan realized that both hard and soft power have a place and a time for their use, and any sort of categorical hardline stance on foreign policy is bound to produce the wrong results in one situation or the other. On the domestic front, we have a relative wealth of information about how the economy is working and can spend plenty of time debating which programs to fund and which to cut; in contrast, foreign policy demands that a President deal (or not deal) with one hundred and ninety-five other countries, each with its own unique culture, history, political scene, and leader, sometimes on their schedule, and with relatively limited information about the situation. Reagan realized this fundamental difference and reacted differently to each situation, which is why his actions are used to justify both an interventionist and non-interventionist foreign policy. If either frontrunner cherry-picks only part of Reagan’s legacy, he does a disservice to himself, to the former President, and to the GOP.

Insofar as Senator Paul seems to understand this delicate balance in his op-ed, he is correct. Chest-beating for the sake of a political agenda is not helpful for the Republican Party. But neither is the “heads buried in the sand” isolationism which some accuse Senator Paul of advocating. In reality, Senator Paul favors non-intervention, but is not a complete isolationist to the point of detriment to the U.S. In fact, much like Senator Cruz, he favors isolating Russia as punishment for Putin’s actions towards Ukraine but holding back military action. Senator Paul recommended that President Obama consider forcing Russia out of the G-8 (hardly an isolationist idea), and Senator Cruz agreed. The only minor difference in opinion is that the Kentucky Senator is wary of giving money to a Ukrainian government with a corrupt history, whereas the Texas Senator has said he would wait to hear the recommendations of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee before deciding.

It may not make for good election politics, but a strong candidate must acknowledge their willingness to use a variety of approaches towards friends and foes abroad – just like Reagan – rather than drawing back into unequivocal hardline stances on one side or the other. Since Rand Paul’s op-ed seems to understand that nuanced part of Reagan’s legacy better, his early status as frontrunner seems deserved.

*Thomas Warns is a J.D. Candidate, class of 2015, at NYU School of law, Staff Editor on the NYU Journal of Law & Liberty , and author of the weekly column "Consider This a Warning."