COLUMBIA, South Carolina — The Republican primary hasn’t had many easy openings for a candidate to separate himself and stand alone on a policy issue. Ted Cruz found one earlier this month: the draft.
The idea of making women eligible for the selective service was “nuts,” “wrong,” and “immoral,” he first told a crowd Peterborough, New Hampshire, the day after several Republicans said women should be eligible during a debate.
Here in South Carolina — where he’s facing tough poll numbers in a critical election and hoping to appeal to both evangelicals and to military families — Cruz has made the issue a feature of his stump speech.
“As a father of two daughters, mark my words, we are not going to be drafting our daughters into combat roles,” Cruz said at a rally in Columbia on Tuesday afternoon. Cruz’s Tuesday was designed to highlight his positions on military issues and cast him in a commander-in-chief light; his first event of the day had been a speech on rebuilding the military on the USS Yorktown in Mount Pleasant.
“Two debates ago when I stood on the Republican stage and heard three Republican candidates embracing ‘Sure, we should be drafting women in combat,’ I had to admit I kind of thought Rod Serling was gonna walk out and say, ‘You have now entered the Twilight Zone,'” Cruz said in Columbia. “Have we lost our faculties? Is political correctness so consuming that we’re not willing to say that’s just nuts? The time of political correctness, the time of the military being treated as a cauldron for social experiments, is over.”
Cruz repeated the Twilight Zone joke again at a speech to the Republican Women’s Club in Greenville on Thursday, and again at a speech to a Conservative Review convention in Greenville that night.
The extent to which the issue really resonates, however, is much less clear. Unlike the debate on Twitter among conservatives that the issue provoked, even Rep. Jeff Duncan, one of Cruz’s South Carolina endorsers, told BuzzFeed News he didn’t think the issue was an important litmus test here.
“It won’t be the deciding factor in an election” in South Carolina, Duncan said. “But it is out there, the story’s out here, the Post and Courier’s written an article. And I really think we’re all soul searching about what is the right thing.” Duncan said he didn’t think America is “ready to see” women being drafted into combat roles.
And in South Carolina, where military experience or familiarity with the military is much more common, the idea of a draft seemed sort of a moot, unrealistic point to some voters BuzzFeed News spoke with. Stephanie Simon, 35, a stay-at-home mom whose husband serves in the Air Force, said she hadn't put much thought into the issue because the prospect of another draft in the United States seemed so far-fetched.
"Is it necessary? I don't think it ever will be,” she said.
She said she was theoretically open to the idea of women being drafted into non-combat roles, but didn't like the idea of compelling women into front-line fighting. The factors she did weigh were less philosophical and more practical, like the women's safety, in the bunkers and in the battlefield.
“If they’re ready for it and can handle it, go for it,” said Barbara Krell, 73, of Lexington. “But just to draft women per se — I’m for the draft, boys and girls, when they get out of the high school, because we don’t have the discipline and the structure in the home today.”
“I’m against that,” said Marilyn Newman, 76, of Elgin, when asked about drafting women. “I have four daughters. They would be willing to go, but I don’t want them to be drafted.”
Asked whether he thinks Cruz’s message on women in the draft resonates in South Carolina, Cruz’s Senate colleague Lindsey Graham, who has endorsed Jeb Bush and is a frequent critic of Cruz, said “not particularly.”
“We’re talking about allowing women to be subject to the draft if we ever have one, no one’s going to the front lines who’s not qualified to go, period,” Graham said. “Equating being subject to the draft with being a combat soldier is just misleading.”
The debate over women in the draft started after Sen. Claire McCaskill asked at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing about the possibility of women being drafted into the military. Military leaders at the hearing said they supported the Selective Service being opened to women.
The debate is hypothetical, since there has not been a draft since the Vietnam War. Still, the issue is rich with deep-seated conflict over gender roles, the military, and national security, and presents an easy opportunity for Cruz to draw contrast and fortify his conservative bona fides.
Cruz’s team says it’s an issue Cruz believes in and not something where he necessarily sees political benefit.
“Instead of qualifying the issue through a political lens, take it on its merits,” said Jason Miller, senior communications adviser to Cruz. “Sen. Cruz has made his position very clear on this, it’s something he believes.”
“He answered the question of what do you believe on the issue, and it’s for the voters to decide how they stack up,” Miller said.
McKay Coppins contributed reporting.