Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioTop Trump officials push border wall as government shutdown looms Rubio defends Trump: 'This whole flip-flop thing is a political thing' Rubio: Shutdown would have 'catastrophic impact' on global affairs MORE (Fla.) is looking to position himself as the foremost foreign policy hawk in the field of Republican presidential candidates — and the most incisive critic of President Obama and Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonDem: Pruitt violating anti-campaigning law with GOP fundraiser Michael Flynn’s troubles mount Writer who pushed 'Pizzagate' conspiracy theory says he'll attend WH briefing MORE on global affairs.
The senator made the case Wednesday at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York that he’s ready to step into the role of commander in chief, in his first major policy address as a presidential candidate.
Rubio asserted that Obama “wasted no time stripping parts from the engine of American strength” and accused the president of exhibiting “a disregard for our moral purpose that at times flirted with disdain.”
He blasted the former secretary of State as “ineffective at best and dangerously negligent at worst.”
“We simply cannot afford to elect as our next president one of the leading agents of this administration’s foreign policy,” Rubio said. “The stakes of tomorrow are too high to look to the failed leadership of yesterday.”
The pillars of Rubio’s foreign policy doctrine are simple and largely in line with Republican orthodoxy. He called for more military spending, an international defense of the American economy and “moral clarity regarding America’s core values.”
But Rubio sent a clear message to his challengers for the GOP presidential nomination.
“He’s looking to corner the market on foreign policy,” said party strategist Ron Bonjean.
In recent weeks, Rubio has secured his place in the top tier of Republican presidential candidates in the polls. He’s a favorite among many conservative pundits who admire his youth, charisma, personal story and rhetorical ability.
But Rubio also appears to believe that foreign policy is the substantive ground on which he could separate himself from the other GOP candidates.
“If he’s going to win, he’ll do it largely on the back of his foreign policy,” said Ford O’Connell, another party strategist. “It’s where he can differentiate himself from the field at an early stage. The rest of the field is hawkish, but he’s more of a hawk, and that’s music to the ears of Republican primary voters who are older and generally think the world has gone to hell under the Obama-Clinton regime.”
Rubio’s reach for the conservative foreign policy mantle has coincided with a series of missteps from his mentor-turned-rival, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R).
Bush, who many view as Rubio’s most formidable opponent in the GOP primaries, stumbled this week on questions about whether he would have invaded Iraq.
Meanwhile, a congressional battle is under way over how to extend certain provisions of the Patriot Act, including a section that has been used by the National Security Agency as the legal basis for collecting information about U.S. phone calls in bulk.
Rubio strongly defends the practice, a position that places him at the opposite end of the national security spectrum from another GOP presidential candidate, Sen. Rand PaulRand PaulWe can put America first by preventing public health disasters Conservative activists want action from Trump McConnell: 'Big challenge' to pass ObamaCare repeal in Senate MORE (Ky.).
More generally, Rubio and his allies have long been pointing to foreign policy as a reason he should be considered presidential material.
Rubio is on the front lines of the issue, in part because of his seat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Many Republicans also point to Rubio’s January appearance at the California winter meeting of Freedom Partners, the conservative, free-market group aligned with Republican mega-donors Charles and David Koch, as the moment when he cemented his standing as a leading national security voice among the 2016 GOP field.
Rubio’s hawkish performance, which again featured vigorous criticisms of Obama, won him the informal straw poll of conservative donors that gathered for the conference, in the process beating Paul and Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzKansas Republican sworn in after special election Overnight Finance: Dems want ObamaCare subsidies for extra military spending | Trade battle: Woe, Canada? | Congress nears deal to help miners | WH preps to release tax plan Cruz: Seize money from drug lords to fund border wall MORE (R-Texas), both of whom had shared the stage with him.
Rubio has also picked some fights with likely GOP candidates who are serving or past governors, including Bush, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Rubio has characterized governors generally as foreign policy neophytes, and he has accused them of seeking to inflate their thin records by taking short trips abroad.
“He’s setting the pace while some of these others are still learning the ropes,” said O’Connell. “The governors might have more latitude on domestic issues, but he’s getting briefed daily … on foreign policy issues, so he’s got the latitude here.”
Still, the GOP field is full of hawks, none of whom will want to cede the foreign policy mantle to the first-term senator without a fight.
Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey GrahamOvernight Defense: US moving missile defense system to South Korea | Dems want justification for Syria strike | Army pick pushes back against critics of LGBT record Graham: There are 'no good choices left' with North Korea Graham: North Korea shouldn't underestimate Trump MORE (R) is predicating his likely presidential run almost entirely on his foreign policy bona fides. Polling strongly in his home state of South Carolina, which has a large military presence, he could play the spoiler in the early-voting state.
Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) is trying to reinvent himself as he prepares to launch another presidential bid. Perry says he’s spent the last four years studying foreign policy closely, and he has energized crowds at campaign stops with his fiery, hawkish rhetoric.
And while Bush struggled this week on questions about the Iraq War, he gave a more authoritative speech outlining his foreign policy vision at the Council on Foreign Relations in February, showing he has a nuanced understanding of global politics. He’s also pulled together an experienced team of foreign policy advisers.
“Marco is going to have to flesh out the pillars of his policy and unveil a more sophisticated vision as he moves along,” Bonjean said.
“But right now he’s doing the right thing, keeping it at 30,000 feet and laying down a marker. These principles he’s putting forward are a good showcase to Republicans interested to know what kind commander in chief he’d be.”