Eyes on 2016, potential White House contenders flock with doves on Syria

Likely Republican presidential hopefuls who once expressed hawkish views on U.S. policy in Syria are pivoting with an eye on how the issue will play in the 2016 GOP primary. [WATCH VIDEO]

With the conservative wing of the party now largely unified in opposition to military action, Sens. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioOvernight Defense: Tillerson, Trump deny report of rift | Tillerson says he never considered resigning | Trump expresses 'total confidence' in secretary | Rubio asks Army to kick out West Point grad Rubio asks Army to kick out West Point grad with pro-communist posts GOP establishment doubts Bannon’s primary powers MORE (R-Fla.) and Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzWhatever you think the Alabama special election means, you’re probably wrong This week: Congress gets ball rolling on tax reform Week ahead: Senators work toward deal to fix ObamaCare markets MORE (R-Texas) are singing a different tune from just months ago, when both seemed to advocate a more muscular U.S. response to Syrian President Bashar Assad. Both Cruz and Rubio dispute that their views have changed. 

Cruz said he opposes military strikes on Syria as proposed by President Obama. He enraged the Obama administration, and some fellow Republicans, by repeating a line from anti-war former Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) that the U.S. would be serving as “al Qaeda’s air force” with attacks that would aid jihadist rebels in Syria.

As recently as June, the Tea Party-backed senator said during a Senate floor speech that the U.S. needed to “go in” and secure Assad’s chemical weapons.

“We need to be developing right now a clear, practical plan to go in, locate the weapons, secure or destroy them, and then get out. The United States should be firmly in the lead to make sure the job is done right,” Cruz said.

He added then that the U.S. “might work in concert with our allies, but this needs to be an operation driven by the mission, not by a coalition.”

Rubio, too, adopted a more dovish tack.

Last week, he voted against the Syria strike resolution approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

But in April, when Assad was first accused of using chemical weapons, Rubio said,  “the time for passive engagement in this conflict must come to an end.”

“It is in the vital national security interest of our nation to see Assad’s removal,” he added.

In recent days, Rubio clarified that he is in favor of offering “carefully vetted” Syrian opposition groups “lethal support,” and said that he was never in favor of military action in the country.

A spokesman for Cruz was adamant the senator has not changed his views on Syria. 

"The Senator's position is the same as it was in June, when he made floor remarks on this subject," said Cruz communications director Sean Rushton.

If intelligence showed a clear national security threat – including the potential for extremist rebels getting chemical weapons – Senator Cruz would support U.S. military action.

The president has not made his case, Rushton said, because the administration is proposing only a very limited strike.

“It is not about taking out their chemical weapons assets.”  

Cruz’s and Rubio’s statements on Syria reflect the sensitivity surrounding the upcoming vote on military strikes, which has emerged as the first significant foreign policy issue possible White House hopefuls have had to contend with this election cycle.

For potential GOP presidential candidates, the Syria vote illustrates “there’s big difference between whether you’re going to carry the flag for the establishment or the conservative wing of the party,” said R.C. Hammond, who served as spokesman for Newt Gingrich’s 2012 presidential campaign.

That helps explain why Cruz and Rubio have become outspoken opponents of military engagement.

Rubio, in particular, faces the burden of shoring up the waning support he’s seen from conservatives over his leadership on immigration reform, which angered much of the base.

The Florida senator also has staked out a more hawkish stance on a number of recent foreign policy issues. He favored military engagement in Libya and opposed a proposal to cut off U.S. aid to Egypt.

His opposition to military strikes may be as much informed by a need to appease the conservative base that helped elect him as it is by the circumstances in Syria.

In their role as doves on Syria, Rubio and Cruz are playing catch up with Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulHouse bill set to reignite debate on warrantless surveillance Authorizing military force is necessary, but insufficient GOP feuds with outside group over analysis of tax framework MORE (R-Ky.), another likely 2016 contender.

Paul’s emergence as a leading GOP voice against strikes — and the encouragement he’s gotten from the party’s grass roots on the matter — highlights the transformation in the Republican Party on foreign policy from just a decade ago.

During the 2008 campaign, then-Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) was ridiculed by two GOP front-runners, Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainRubio asks Army to kick out West Point grad with pro-communist posts The VA's woes cannot be pinned on any singular administration Overnight Defense: Mattis offers support for Iran deal | McCain blocks nominees over Afghanistan strategy | Trump, Tillerson spilt raises new questions about N. Korea policy MORE (Ariz.) and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, for his anti-war stance and was booed at Republican presidential debates.

But the GOP has begun to refashion itself and embrace a more noninterventionist posture.

The opposition stems partly from a general distaste for drawn-out military entanglements, partly from fatigue for continued spending on conflicts abroad, and partly because President Obama is the one advocating a strike.

The opposition to strikes has become so strong, some GOP strategists believe it might be difficult for any Republican who favors military action in Syria to gain traction in the party’s presidential primary.

“It looks like they got caught up in some cloakroom mentality,” Hammond said of how Rubio and Cruz have handled Syria.

“You go in [to the Senate], and a lot of your information comes to you from your colleagues and your briefings and what everyone’s doing inside Washington. What [Rubio and Cruz have] gone and done is, they’ve applied a real-world lens to some of their thinking.”

Hammond said the position adopted by Cruz and Rubio on Syria could become an issue in a Republican primary if opponents see inconsistency.

One top Paul aide told The Hill that the Kentucky senator was keeping such an attack in mind, with an eye on 2016.

“For 2016 candidates, the important thing to show is you have thought through what your approach would be to the challenges America faces abroad and how you would use the tools of diplomacy, soft power, economic sanctions and military force to solve them,” the Paul aide said.

“Consistency, and having thought out your values, and how you apply those [foreign policy] tools are all going to be critically important. Candidates that shift with the wind — depending on the politics of the moment — will have a harder time defending their values and their approaches during the debates,” the aide added.

And while Republicans have insisted their shifts haven’t been politically motivated, Hammond said that’s hard to believe.

Asked whether he thought political considerations had anything to do with Cruz and Rubio’s evolution on Syria, he expressed skepticism.

“If it’s not [political], that’s refreshing,” he said.

Updated at 11 a.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 10.