I must confess that I’m confused. I still have vivid memories of the tea-party revolution of 2010, when insurgent conservative candidates toppled incumbents and establishment favorites from coast to coast. This was the year of Rand Paul in Kentucky, Ron Johnson in Wisconsin, and Nikki Haley in South Carolina.
Perhaps most momentous of all, it was the year of Marco Rubio, who overcame long odds to beat Charlie Crist, a man who’s since proven himself to be exactly the kind of soulless politician the tea party exists to oppose. Since his election, Rubio has delivered, becoming one of the most consistent and eloquent conservatives in the Senate. My colleague, Jim Geraghty, has outlined his stratospheric ratings from the American Conservative Union, National Rifle Association, National Right to Life, and the Family Research Council.
A little-noticed health care provision that Senator Marco Rubio of Florida slipped into a giant spending law last year has tangled up the Obama administration, sent tremors through health insurance markets and rattled confidence in the durability of President Obama’s signature health law.
So for all the Republican talk about dismantling the Affordable Care Act, one Republican presidential hopeful has actually done something toward achieving that goal.
By blocking bailouts of insurance companies, he’s preventing the White House from passing even more of the costs of Obamacare to taxpayers and forcing insurers to live with the true price of the law.
RELATED: Marco Rubio Is Plenty Conservative
Here’s what I don’t understand, then: How did Rubio morph — in the eyes of his critics — from tea party to “establishment” in less than one election cycle? Let’s recall that as recently as this summer, Rubio’s bid for the presidency was seen as a serious threat to fellow Floridian — and undisputed “establishment” heavyweight — Jeb Bush. Rubio was an electoral Bush-killer. He was the roadblock to the return of the Bush dynasty.
Now, it’s all changed. To some on the right, Rubio is the establishment toady, the “GOPe” candidate, a man only a RINO could support.
It seems that he’s now the “establishment” candidate mainly because a number of establishment figures and donors have defected to him after their preferred candidate — perhaps Bush, Christie, or Kasich — failed to gain traction. But if the standard for establishment status is simply whether establishment figures have chosen to support you after their first-choice candidate fails, then every single GOP contender is either establishment or establishment-in-waiting. After all, if Rubio falters, mass numbers of establishment politicians and donors will rush to back Cruz over Trump. And if Cruz falters, those same people will presumably back Trump over Hillary.Here’s the reality: In the battle — launched in 2010 — between the tea party and traditional GOP powers, the tea party largely won. The contest between Rubio, Cruz, and Trump is a fight between Tea Party 1.0, Tea Party 2.0, and classic American populism. And each one of these candidates would need traditional Republican or “establishment” support in the general election.
If Rubio is “establishment,” the term has lost any real meaning. He’s a consistent conservative whose positions and ideology largely align with whomever his critics prefer, Cruz included. He’s a tea party champion who effectively expelled Charlie Crist from the Republican party and dealt a serious blow to Jeb Bush. For the most part, a fight between Rubio and Cruz is a fight over matters of tone and style, not substance. A fight between Rubio and Trump is a battle between a conservative and a populist. Unless something dramatic happens between now and the New Hampshire primary, the establishment has already lost this cycle. Only the insurgents remain.
— David French is an attorney and a staff writer at National Review.