George Will reached a strange conclusion in his column on Cuba and the Rubio-Paul fight last week:
What makes Rubio uncharacteristically shrill, saying Paul has “no idea what he’s talking about”? And what makes Paul too clever by half when saying Rubio wants to “retreat to our borders” and hence is an “isolationist”? CDS does this. As they brawl about Cuba, a geopolitical irrelevancy, neither seems presidential.
It seems to me that it is Will that is trying to be clever by half here. He doesn’t really disagree with Paul on normalization (Paul “is correct to support giving it a try,” he writes), but doesn’t want to come down entirely against Rubio despite the fact that he (correctly) perceives him to be unreasonable on this issue. So Will comes up with a “syndrome” to find fault with both when he doesn’t have a strong objection to anything Paul said. The trouble with Rubio isn’t just that he takes a foolish position on Cuba policy, but that he frequently endorses hard-line policies that make no more sense than the embargo that he intends to defend to the last. Mocking Rubio for advocating “retreat” was one way to throw Rubio’s own tiresome rhetoric back in his face and drawing attention to the absurdity of supposedly supporting “engagement” while vehemently opposing diplomatic engagement in the real world.
Cuba is itself not all that important to the U.S., but the argument over Cuba policy is potentially quite significant for what it tells us about both sides’ respective worldviews and the assumptions that inform the positions that Rubio and Paul have taken. Is their quarreling over a real policy issue insufficiently “presidential”? I’m not sure that it is, but if it is then perhaps we should reconsider what we intend to say when we use that term. Rubio’s problem isn’t that he holds very strong policy views, but that he is devoted to indefensible policies. It seems likely that both see the debate over Cuba as standing in for a larger debate over what kind of foreign policy Republicans should support. Rubio reacted so negatively to Paul earlier this month because he deeply dislikes intra-party dissent on foreign policy and sees Republican dissent on Cuba as especially intolerable for the party’s hawks. Meanwhile, Cuba policy offers Paul an easy opportunity to break with his party’s hawks over a policy that is widely recognized as a failure. This has nothing to with suffering from some “derangement,” and everything to do with perceiving the fight over Cuba policy as a fight over the direction of Republican foreign policy in miniature. Even though the overall stakes for the U.S. are not that great, the debate could still be very illuminating.