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Opinion Morning Plum: Ted Cruz opposes torture. Donald Trump wants to expand it.

Well, this should get interesting. In a primary dominated by Donald Trump’s ever-escalating demagoguery when it comes to terrorism, Ted Cruz has now come out against reinstituting torture in an interview with the Associated Press:

“We can defend our nation and be strong and uphold our values,” he says. “There is a reason the bad guys engage in torture. ISIS engages in torture. Iran engages in torture. America does not need to torture to protect ourselves.”

Now, it’s worth asking what Cruz means by “torture.” It’s possible he doesn’t think waterboarding is torture, for instance. Still, Cruz does seem to be feeling way towards a contrast with Trump. This morning, for instance, Trump claimed that we have to target the families of terrorists:

“I would knock the hell out of ISIS. I would hit them so hard, like they’ve never been hit before….The other thing with the terrorists — you have to take out their families.”

It appears Ted Cruz is making a serious move to stake out a marginally less belligerent national security posture amid a GOP primary increasingly dominated by bellicose rhetoric in the wake of the Paris attacks. Yes, it’s true that Cruz was quick to demagogue about Muslims after the attacks, and he continues to demand that we utter the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” as often as possible. But his positions are not easily pigeonholed.

For instance, Cruz had previously gone head to head with Marco Rubio over National Security Agency surveillance. Rubio has tried to out-hawk Cruz by accusing him of being soft on terror because he supported the U.S.A. Freedom Act, which reined in that surveillance. Cruz hasn’t backed off that position, arguing that Rubio is merely using the surveillance debate to distract from his dismal immigration record. (In this context, it will be interesting to hear Rubio’s response to Cruz’s opposition to torture.) More generally, Cruz has tried to stake out a middle ground between neocon militarism and non-interventionists like Rand Paul, claiming the neocons have “advocated military adventurism that has had the effect of benefiting radical Islamic terrorists.”

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Now Cruz appears to be seeking to contrast himself with Trump on torture. The Donald has come out squarely for reinstituting waterboarding, saying: “I would absolutely bring back interrogation, and strong interrogation.”  Trump has even said that in the war on terror, we’ll have to do things that are “frankly unthinkable.”

At the same time, however, Trump has also been critical of reckless militarism, claiming that the Iraq War was a disaster. As Peter Beinart has pointed out, Trump is a “Jacksonian” in the sense that he blends skepticism of American involvement abroad with a ferocious response to those deemed to be our enemies. With Trump now claiming we must target the families of terrorists, it’s clear that his “demagoguery inflation” in the context of taking on our myriad enemies — a category that is very fluid and mutable — knows no bounds. But Trump has combined this with repeated criticism of the Iraq War. It’s a formula that seems to be working among Republican voters.

Cruz seems to be trying to find a space that not only criticizes military adventurism, but also acknowledges at least some limits in the fight against the enemy. It’s not clear that acknowledging such limits is the way to win over Trump supporters, however.


* TRUMP-MENTUM CONTINUES TO RAGE: A new Quinnipiac poll finds that Donald Trump has edged upwards among Republicans and GOP leaners: He has 27 percent, while there is a near-three-way-tie for second place, with Marco Rubio at 17 percent and Ted Cruz and Ben Carson at 16 percent. Rubio and Cruz have both gained while Carson has dropped.

Trump is showing a staying power that Carson isn’t — even though we were widely told the Paris attacks would somehow hurt him. And it’s looking increasingly like Rubio and Cruz will go head-to-head in the battle to be the alternative to Trump.

* GOP IN FULL-BLOWN PANIC OVER TRUMP: The New York Times reports that top Republicans now fear an “electoral wipeout” in the Senate and even in state level races if Trump is the GOP nominee, which they fear now cannot be ruled out. But:

Some of the party’s wealthiest and most generous donors have balked at trying to take down Mr. Trump because they fear a public feud with the insult-spewing media figure. Others warn that doing so might backfire at a time of soaring anger toward political insiders. That has led to a standoff of sorts: Almost everyone in the party’s upper echelons agrees something must be done, and almost no one is willing to do it.

Also: If we do see a “stop Trump” movement emerge, what’s to stop Trump from concluding that he was treated “unfairly,” and thus that the GOP broke its promise in exchange for his pledge not to run as a third-party candidate?

* HILLARY WIDENS LEAD OVER SANDERS: The new Quinnipiac poll also finds that Hillary Clinton now leads Bernie Sanders among Democrats and Dem-leaners nationally by 60-30, up from 53-35 in early November.

However, Clinton’s personal numbers remain in the toilet: Americans say she isn’t honest and trustworthy by 60-36, and say she doesn’t care about their needs and problems by 51-46. Still, Americans say she has strong leadership qualities by 60-38, and she leads all the Republican candidates (though these general election match-ups mean little at this point).

* REPUBLICANS VOW TO SCRAP GLOBAL CLIMATE DEAL: Bloomberg reports that Republicans are vowing that a GOP president will rip up any global climate deal, but also quotes legal experts saying it will be a lot harder to block it than Republicans think. However, Republicans do have one angle that might complicate matters:

Obama still needs Congress to go along with his promise to deliver $3 billion into a United Nations fund to help developing countries adapt to rising seas and other impacts of climate change. And scores of lawmakers have told the president they won’t pay the bill.

We’ll see whether Republicans actually hold firm against this if there’s a deal. Meanwhile, the other key question is whether they succeed in blocking Obama’s plan to reduce carbon emissions, which actually could complicate our participation in a global agreement.

* PRO-HILLARY SUPER PAC HITS GOP ON CLIMATE: The pro-Clinton Priorities USA is out with a new Web ad featuring footage of the GOP presidential candidates showcasing their dazzling climate change denialism and/or skepticism, and contrasting that with Clinton calling for a transition to a clean energy economy.

If and when the GOP candidates all pledge to unravel a global climate deal, this could form the basis for another point of contrast that Dems will seize on to paint the GOP as trapped in the past and hostile to forward-looking international engagement.

* THE PLUM LINE IS ON FACEBOOK!!! Here’s your regular reminder that this blog now has a Facebook page. You can get most of our posts there, too.

* AND TED CRUZ’S LATEST NONSENSE, DEBUNKED: The good Senator from Texas claims that “the overwhelming majority of violent criminals are Democrats.” Glenn Kessler rips apart the claim, and reports that the authors of the study the Cruz camp itself cited to back it up have now claimed Cruz “misrepresented” their research. Details, details…