Sen. Ted Cruz has found a new wedge issue in the Republican presidential race: excluding women from the draft.
Currently, young men, but not young women, are required to register for the draft. That policy has been in question since December, when the military opened all its positions, including combat roles, to women. Last week, prodded by a Democratic senator, leaders of the armed forces testified that in view of the December announcement, it’s logical to register women for the Selective Service.
In Saturday’s Republican presidential debate, ABC’s Martha Raddatz asked Sen. Marco Rubio whether women should have to register. Rubio said yes:
There are already women today serving in roles that are like combat. [Their] lives are in very serious danger. And so, I have no problem whatsoever with people of either gender serving in combat, so long as the minimum requirements necessary to do the job are not compromised. ... And, obviously, now that that is the case, I do believe that Selective Service should be opened up for both men and women in case a draft is ever instituted.
Jeb Bush agreed. “I'm not suggesting we have a draft,” he said, and “the draft’s not going to be reinstituted.” But in principle, he argued, “We should not impose any kind of political agenda on the military. ... If women can meet the requirements, the minimum requirements for combat service, they ought to have the right to do it.”
Gov. Chris Christie, who hadn’t been asked the question, also piped up. “If a young woman in this country wants to go and fight to defend their country, she should be permitted to do so,” he said. “There’s no reason why young women should be discriminated against from registering for the Selective Service. ... We need to be a party and a people that makes sure that our women in this country understand [that] anything they can dream, anything that they want to aspire to, they can do.”
Cruz didn’t speak up during the exchange. But on Sunday afternoon, he recalled it during a town hall meeting in Peterborough, New Hampshire:
Let me say something about the debate last night. You know, it was striking that three different people on that stage came out in support of drafting women into combat in the military. I didn’t have an opportunity to respond to that particular question. But I have to admit, as I was sitting there listening to that conversation, my reaction was: “Are you guys nuts?” Listen, we have had enough with political correctness, especially in the military. Political correctness is dangerous. And the idea that we would draft our daughters to forcibly bring them into the military and put them in close combat, I think, is wrong. It is immoral.
Cruz went on:
I’m the father of two little girls. I love those girls with all of my heart. They are capable of doing anything in their heart’s desire. But the idea that their government would forcibly put them in a foxhole with a 220-pound psychopath trying to kill them doesn’t make any sense at all. And it’s yet one more sign of this politically correct world, where we forget common sense.
This wasn’t a throwaway line. Cruz, who rarely adds anything to his stump speech, spent two minutes on the topic. He also issued a press release, alerting the media that he had just “announced his opposition to drafting women into combat.” Evidently, Cruz thinks he has found an issue that can help him in the primary. And he may be right.
It’s not often that you get to see a new wedge issue in the process of being formed. So it’s worth paying attention to how it’s done. First, notice the delay between the debate and the attack. In Peterborough, Cruz said he thought that what Rubio, Bush, and Christie had said in the debate was nutty but that at the time, he “didn’t have an opportunity to respond.” That’s baloney. Christie wasn’t asked the question, either. He spoke up because he wanted to. Cruz could have done the same thing, but he didn’t. Why? Because he wasn’t sure it would be smart. Cruz is the most calculating politician in the Republican field. He needed time to ascertain whether drawing a distinction on this issue would help him.
The answer turned out to be yes. But it depends on how you frame the issue. In January and February 2013, Quinnipiac University surveyed registered voters on the role of women in the armed forces. By a margin of 63 percent to 34 percent, Republicans agreed that “women who serve in the military and who want to serve in ground units that engage in close combat should be allowed to do that.” Republicans didn’t support equal conscription, however. The poll asked: “If the military draft were reinstated, would you favor or oppose drafting women as well as men?” Only 46 percent of Republicans favored that idea. Forty-eight percent opposed it.
Other surveys confirmed this distinction. In a Pew poll taken in January 2013, 55 percent of Republicans supported “allowing women in the military to serve in ground units that engage in close combat.” In a nearly simultaneous Gallup poll, 70 percent of Republicans said they would vote for “a law that would allow women to serve in combat.” But in a Mason-Dixon survey conducted two months later, Republicans opposed drafting women, 54 percent to 40 percent.
Why did the Mason-Dixon poll find stronger Republican opposition to female conscription than the Quinnipiac poll did? Probably because Mason-Dixon included the word combat. The questionnaire said: “The Defense Secretary recently lifted the ban on women participating in combat. In light of this, if a U.S. military draft becomes necessary again, do you feel women should or should not be included?” The triple combination of women, combat, and conscription—not just women in voluntary combat, or women in the draft—caused a majority of Republicans to draw a line against equal treatment.
That’s why Rubio, Bush, and Christie didn’t put those three factors together—and why Cruz did. Rubio said the Selective Service should be “opened up” to women. Bush said women should “have the right” to serve in combat. Christie said women should be allowed to pursue any role they “aspire to.” Cruz, by contrast, emphasized that conscription was coercive and would kill women, not empower them. He distinguished equality for his daughters—the freedom to pursue “anything in their heart’s desire”—from the notion that “their government would forcibly put them in a foxhole with a 220-pound psychopath.”
In effect, Cruz framed equality in the draft as a policy of violence against women. Ending the ban on women in combat means that anyone who is willing and able to serve in that role can apply for it. That’s what Rubio, Bush, and Christie were thinking about. They weren’t thinking about an imminent draft that would put unwilling women in foxholes, since, as Bush noted, there’s no prospect of a draft at all. And even if a draft were to begin tomorrow, Rubio, Bush, and Christie know that women, like men, would be evaluated individually for their physical ability to serve in combat.
Cruz knows that, too. But he doesn’t see issues as problems to be addressed. He sees them as weapons that can be honed to win elections. So he uses the most inflammatory caricature of the idea at hand—in this case, forcing all “little girls” into hand-to-hand combat with psychopaths twice their size—to scare voters and pry them away from his opponents.
In the long run, this kind of demagoguery isn’t just bad for governing, it’s bad for the GOP. Polls show that even in military matters, the public has shifted toward policies that treat men and women equally. That’s true among Republicans, too. In 2005, an Ipsos/Associated Press survey asked: “If the military draft were reinstated, would you favor or oppose drafting women as well as men?” Republican voters opposed that idea, 56 percent to 42 percent. Eight years later, when Quinnipiac asked the same question, the gap had narrowed to 2 percentage points. In the 21st Century, a party that categorically excludes women from any civic duty, purely on the basis of sex, will seem increasingly obsolete.
But Cruz doesn’t think about that, any more than he thinks about the good of his party when he forces a government shutdown or cows his colleagues into hardening the party line against immigrants. Even if Republican voters are evenly divided on drafting women, Cruz knows that he’ll gain votes by distinguishing himself from Rubio, Bush, and Christies. If those three candidates split voters who are on one side of the issue, and Cruz gets the voters on the other side, he comes out ahead.