Why two Republicans disagree about virtually everything on Cuba

Sen. Marco Rubio hates President Obama's decision to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba. Sen. Rand Paul supports it. Senator Paul appears to be out of step with this party but in line with public opinion.

Lauren Victoria Burke and J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File
Republican Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky (l.) and Marco Rubio of Flordia are taking digs at each other over Cuba policy.

Congress will have to "digest" the new US openness toward Cuba, President Obama said in his year-end press conference on Dec. 26. In the meantime, two Republicans appear to be having a food fight.

Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida – possible contenders for the Republican presidential nomination – are taking to Twitter, Facebook, and radio and television in a foreign policy battle that speaks to the evolving debate over what to do with Cuba.

Traditionally, Cuba has had its own electoral weather system, with presidential candidates ill-advised to take anything but a hardline position toward the communist island. That’s because of the electoral importance of Florida, which has the largest Cuban-American population in the country.

But Senators Paul and Rubio are using the issue to try to distinguish themselves in a GOP field that could very well be overshadowed by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, if he decides to run. Paul has been trying to break from the pack by taking up issues of race and poverty, while Rubio is positioning himself as an advocate of a far more forceful foreign policy and also championing the poor and middle class.

Cuba throws their differences into sharp relief. What is unclear is which one stands to gain more.

On this issue, Rubio – the son of Cuban immigrants – is clearly in the Republican mainstream. He took the lead in lambasting Mr. Obama's decision to normalize diplomatic relations, saying it appeased the Castro regime and won no concessions toward freedom or democracy.

Rubio promises to do all he can to “unravel” the president’s policy by, for instance, denying funds for an embassy and holding up the nomination of an ambassador. While Paul cited US engagement, diplomacy, and trade with China and Vietnam in a Dec. 19 opinion article in Time magazine, Rubio countered on ABC's "This Week" on Sunday that China and Vietnam "are not any more politically free today."

If Paul “wants to become the chief cheerleader for the Obama foreign policy, he certainly has the right to do so,” Rubio added.

For his part, Paul tweeted that Rubio is “acting like an isolationist” on Cuba – a label that Paul himself is trying to shed, and one that hardly seems to fit the hawkish Rubio.

“Communism can’t survive the captivating allure of capitalism,” Paul added in his Time magazine piece. “Let’s overwhelm the Castro regime with iPhones, iPads, American cars, and American ingenuity.”

William Kristol, the neoconservative editor of the Weekly Standard, told The Washington Post that Paul is “a lonely gadfly” on the Cuba issue. While Paul speaks for a certain segment of the party that has wanted to reestablish relations – especially to build agriculture and other US exports – that segment is a minority, Mr. Kristol said – maybe 10, 15, or 20 percent.

But outside the Republican Party, public opinion has changed, even among Cuban-Americans, one poll suggests. According to a June survey by Florida International University, 68 percent of Cuban-Americans in south Florida favor reestablishing diplomatic relations with Havana, compared with 39 percent in 2004.

Among a field of 12 potential Republican presidential candidates, the RealClearPolitics average of public polls has Mr. Bush leading at 15 percent, Paul in the middle at 9 percent, and Rubio among the stragglers at 4 percent. The polls, however, were taken before Bush’s announcement last week that he’s "actively" exploring running for president and before Obama announced his Cuba changes (which Bush also opposes).

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