DALLAS — Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky pounced Friday on President Obama’s “we don’t have a strategy yet” comments about the violent militant faction attacking cities in Iraq – but other potential Republican 2016 presidential hopefuls laid off as they wowed the crowd at an influential conservative gathering.
Perry and Paul are among four headliners addressing thousands of delegates this weekend in Dallas at the annual summit of Americans for Prosperity, backed by the billionaire industrialist Koch brothers. Also speaking are Indiana Gov. Mike Pence and firebrand Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
“Yesterday, the president admitted he had no strategy to deal with ISIS,” Perry said, drawing hoots and hisses in a packed convention hall. “The deepening chaos in Iraq, Syria, Gaza, and Ukraine is all the clear and compelling evidence the world needs of a president one step behind, lurching from crisis to crisis, always playing catch up.”
Paul, meanwhile, fired up the audience by suggesting that Obama’s lack of leadership shows he’s been on the job too long – though he was more-measured in comments off-stage. And Pence and Cruz both ducked chances to ding the White House.
Republicans criticizing Obama’s foreign policy is nothing new, but there are deepening divisions within the party over how to move forward.
The broader debate pits those who favor the party’s traditional muscular foreign policy – a group that includes Perry and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio – and those, like Paul and Cruz, who prefer a smaller international footprint. The so-called isolationist approach plays well with grassroots activists and a war-weary public, but worries many Republican officials and donors who prefer an aggressive American role in world affairs.
The intra-party divisions largely weren’t much on display at the Americans for Prosperity event, but will become clearer as the crowded group of possible presidential candidates tries to distinguish themselves in the coming months.
Obama spoke Thursday, shortly before convening a meeting of his national security advisers to discuss a range of Pentagon options for confronting the Islamic State group. The U.S. is already striking militant targets in Iraq, and administration officials have said the president was considering similar action in neighboring Syria.
“We don’t have a strategy yet,” the president said. “I think that’s not just my assessment, but the assessment of our military, as well. We need to make sure that we’ve got clear plans, that we’re developing them.”
Addressing the Dallas gathering Friday, Pence didn’t mention Obama’s comments – and told The Associated Press afterward only: “The president of the United States is the commander of chief of our armed forces. I wouldn’t want to prejudge what his military advisers counsel.”
Speaking to a ballroom later, some of the loudest applause for Paul came when he quipped: “If the president has no strategy, maybe it’s time for a new president.”
In an emailed comment, however, Paul elaborated by saying: “If I were President, I would call a joint session of Congress. I would lay out the reasoning of why ISIS is a threat to our national security and seek congressional authorization to destroy ISIS militarily.”
Perry, who has in the past clashed publicly with Paul over foreign policy, went far further Friday.
“President Obama’s response has been to minimize the threat, as if his words have the power to make it so,” Perry said. “American leadership is needed now, more than ever. Presidential leadership is needed now, more than ever.”
The longest-serving governor in Texas history was indicted this month in Austin on two felony counts related to abusing the power of his office. But Perry has gained favorable attention nationally by dismissing the case as a political ploy. He’s also been cheered in conservative circles for deploying 1,000 National Guard troops to the Texas-Mexico border – and Perry drew his loudest applause by declaring “if Washington won’t secure the border, Texas will.”
Cruz doesn’t appear at the Dallas summit until Saturday, and though he’s been a frequent critic of Obama administration foreign policy, spokeswoman Catherine Frazier said he was declining comment until then.
None of those addressing the conference mentioned running for president, but Pence joked that he was sympathetic to the idea that the GOP nominee be a governor, and took a subtle dig at ever Texas-proud Perry, adding, “I’m not going to be listening for somebody that says, ‘Send me to Washington and I’ll run the place just like I ran my state.”‘ That’s basically Perry’s favorite rallying cry.
Then there was Paul, who said the GOP needs to reach out to voting blocs that have long ignored by top conservatives.
“We should not dilute what we stand for,” he said. “We need to be boldly for what we are for. But it means we have to reach out to new people.”