The Cuba debate exploded into the nascent Republican presidential race on Friday -- and this time it’s personal.
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, the lone Republican 2016 prospect to back the White House’s plans to restore relations with its neighbor 90 miles to the south, picked a high-profile fight with Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, the move’s leading national critic, in a series of tweets. The exchange marked a new level of combativeness among the potential presidential field as GOP primary season approaches.
Paul, who only publicly came out against the Cuba embargo for the first time in a radio interview this week, elaborated on his position in a post Friday on Facebook that challenged Rubio by name as well. Later in they day, he published an op-ed in TIME magazine arguing that "once enslaved people taste freedom and see the products of capitalism they will become hungry for freedom themselves."
"The supporters of the embargo against Cuba speak with heated passion but fall strangely silent when asked how trade with Cuba is so different than trade with Russia or China or Vietnam," Paul wrote. "It is an inconsistent and incoherent position to support trade with other communist countries, but not communist Cuba."
Rubio, whose parents are Cuban immigrants, has been on a media blitz this week condemning President Obama’s decision to reopen diplomatic relations with the Castro regime in the harshest possible terms. He took a shot at Paul’s position in an interview Thursday on Fox News that also veered into personal territory, setting the stage for Paul's all-out response the next day.
“Like many people who have been opining, [Paul] has no idea what he’s talking about,” Rubio said at the time.
As Paul noted in his tweets, polls show that a majority of Cuban Americans support lifting the embargo despite heavy opposition from more conservative members of the exile community.
Paul has made clear in recent speeches that if he runs he will press Republican voters to rethink their most basic assumptions about foreign policy and give his more noninterventionist philosophy a serious look. The new spat with Rubio, who hails from the party’s traditional hawkish wing, shows just how eager he is for the debate to start. Notably, Paul tagged Rubio as an "isolationist," an epithet that's often been thrown at the Kentucky Senator over his calls to withdraw from international institutions and shrink America's military footprint abroad.
Policy merits aside, however, Paul is taking a major risk in slamming Rubio so directly. The issue is deeply personal to the Florida senator, and Rubio is often at his most animated in speeches discussing his opposition to the communist regime. Whether one agrees or disagrees with their take, Rubio and many in the Cuban community are heartbroken over the White House decision, and Paul’s outburst could look like he’s kicking them when their down rather than expressing a simple disagreement.
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One other thing to watch: How Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, another Cuban American anti-Castro hardliner looking at a 2016 run, responds. Cruz and Paul have often been allies in the Senate and share a similar base of tea party supporters, but Paul's unusually blunt criticism of Rubio isn't likely to sit well with the Texan politician. A spokeswoman for Cruz declined to comment, but you can expect the question to pop up the next time the Senator's in front of the press.