Freud wasn’t talking about party primaries when he coined the phrase “the narcissism of small differences,” but he might as well have been. The similarities between Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio are demographic, biographical, and ideological. Both are young Cuban-American conservatives who won election to the U.S. Senate by defeating more established Republican politicians. They agree on nearly everything. Listening to them now, though, you would think their worldviews are fundamentally at odds. Cruz’s version of Rubio is an amnesty-loving warmonger; Rubio’s version of Cruz is a pandering isolationist. In reality, the candidates disagree more on political strategy than on policy.
The backbiting could get more intense. Many analysts think the Republican primary race could turn into a contest between the two men, with Cruz representing the more conservative factions of the party and Rubio the “party establishment.” It is a theory that so far has more adherents than evidence to back it. It depends on Donald Trump’s fading away, so that it’s not a three-way race. It also assumes that Rubio will become a more serious contender than polls currently suggest. Cruz — who has, I should note, been a friend of mine for two decades — is ahead in Iowa in some polls; Rubio isn’t ahead in any state. Cruz also seems to be doing better among the most conservative Republicans than Rubio is doing among the less conservative ones: Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and John Kasich are competing for those same voters and are not far behind Rubio in the polls.
Cruz and Rubio have sparred on three issues to date: immigration, surveillance by the National Security Agency, and foreign policy. The first of these issues is the most politically important.
When Rubio ran for the Senate in 2010, he said he would oppose giving illegal immigrants legal status. In 2013, however, he co-sponsored legislation with Democrats that would have let many illegal immigrants receive legal status and citizenship. He later said that the bill was too ambitious, and that Washington would have to prove that immigration laws would be enforced before addressing the status of illegal immigrants.
Cruz opposed that 2013 bill. He said he favored “immigration reform,” but that a path to citizenship was a “poison pill”: Democrats had included it to keep House Republicans from voting for the bill, so that they could keep using immigration as a political issue. He proposed an amendment that would have let illegal immigrants receive legal status but not citizenship. That change, he said, would make it possible to pass immigration reform.
Cruz hits Rubio for backing that “amnesty” bill. Rubio parries that giving legal status to illegal immigrants isn’t that different from giving them citizenship. Cruz says that he never really came out for legal status: The goal of his amendment was to highlight how extreme the bill was and thus kill it. He takes no position on whether illegal immigrants should get legal status, arguing that it is a question that should be addressed after a stronger enforcement regime is in place. In recent weeks, Cruz has also shifted on legal immigration levels: He used to favor increases, but now opposes any increase until more Americans are working.
Both senators are, then, moving rightward on the issue. Cruz, though, seems more in tune with the sentiments of Republican voters, very few of whom tell pollsters they want more immigration.
Cruz voted for the USA Freedom Act, which ended the NSA’s storage of metadata from millions of phone calls made to and from the United States. (Metadata includes numbers dialed, times of calls, and so forth, but not the content of calls.) Under the new law, enacted this summer, the government must request specific records from phone companies. Rubio says that Cruz’s vote weakened national security; Cruz says that attack impugns his patriotism.
That’s a stretch, as is Cruz’s claim that, before the new law, the NSA treated all Americans as guilty until proven innocent. More plausibly, Cruz says that he wants to fight terrorism and protect privacy rights at the same time. He can find safety in numbers. The legislation passed by large margins. It was sponsored by James Sensenbrenner, who sponsored the Patriot Act right after the September 11 attacks and had the support of now-speaker Paul Ryan. Rubio’s line of criticism implicitly portrays most House Republicans as soft on terrorism. It is not a conclusion to which Republican primary voters are naturally drawn.
The foreign-policy debate has taken a somewhat surprising direction. Rubio has aligned himself with those Republicans who believe the country must take an aggressive role in spreading liberty and democracy abroad. Cruz has for a long time said that he stands somewhere in the wide space between John McCain and Rand Paul, who represent the most and least interventionist poles of the party.
As the campaign has progressed, though, Cruz has begun to criticize “neocon” foreign policy more pointedly for being too interventionist and to voice skepticism about promoting democracy abroad. At times, he has said, the U.S. should accept that dictators can be better than the probable alternatives: a lesser evil. He has suggested that Rubio, like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, was wrong to favor ending the regimes of Bashar al-Assad in Syria and the late Moammar Qaddafi in Libya. He has even said that Iraq was more stable when Saddam Hussein ruled it. These views have drawn the “isolationist” charge from Rubio.
The argument on both sides is overdrawn. Cruz is not a knee-jerk opponent of intervention, and he is not indifferent to human rights in other countries. He has done a lot to publicize abuses in Iran, for example, and has argued for deploying missile defenses in Europe. Nor is Rubio indiscriminate in his advocacy of military action: Like Cruz, he declared President Obama’s proposed air strikes against Assad in 2013 unwise and said he would vote against them. But the differences between the men are real and reflect real differences among Republican voters.
These differences over policy have contributed to the associations of Cruz with “tea-party conservatives” and Rubio with “the establishment,” but they are not the primary reasons for those associations. The political style of the two men has played a bigger role. In the fall of 2013, Rubio went along with Cruz in tying the budget to Obamacare in a way that precipitated a partial government shutdown. But it was Cruz, not Rubio, who said that the skeptics of the strategy that led to the shutdown were the “surrender caucus.”
Both men are gifted speakers, which is part of their appeal to Republicans tired of tongue-tied candidates. But Cruz is more likely to use combative language, Rubio to wax inspirational. In each case the rhetorical approach is matched to a distinctive diagnosis of the national condition and a political strategy.
Cruz portrays an America that, thanks to the Obama administration, is on the brink of irreversible decline. Its people are growing too dependent on government. Unless they change course now, they will lose their ability to reclaim their constitutional inheritance and their economic dynamism. And the way to change course is to rouse conservatives to action. In the primaries, the rightmost elements of the Republican party must unify behind him. In the general election, he will motivate conservatives to vote in a way that relative moderates John McCain and Mitt Romney were unable to. Cruz often claims that millions of conservatives and Evangelicals stayed home in the 2008 and 2012 elections. (This is true, as millions of potential voters of every type stay home in any election; it is also true that conservatives and Evangelicals made up the same share of the electorate as usual.)
Rubio also believes that Obama is leaving America in a parlous state, but his critique is more conventional and less apocalyptic. In Rubio’s telling, Obama has made unwise choices driven by a liberal ideology unsuited to the realities of 21st-century American life. Our problems have grown worse, and our mood more sour, because of this disconnect. In the primaries, Rubio’s strategy is to assemble a coalition more akin to those of previous Republican nominees, one that includes elements from every part of the party. In the general, he is signaling that he will employ a strategy like that of past election winners: Like Cruz, he will seek to mobilize the base; more than Cruz, he will attempt to persuade non-ideological voters that his agenda will make a positive difference in their lives. Rubio seeks to modernize the Republican party, Cruz to purify it.
Both men are running campaigns that defy the political rulebook. In Rubio’s case, the bet is that the old rules about needing a “ground game” no longer apply: His campaign is lightly organized. Cruz, by contrast, has an impressive organization. But he is betting that the endorsements from other politicians that candidates have traditionally coveted do not matter. He is betting that he can simultaneously do several things that have not been done in decades, or ever: unite the right of the party in the primaries, battle the party’s leadership explicitly and bitterly and then win the nomination, and win the general election with a base-mobilization strategy.
Both men, then, are in different ways defying the odds. They aim to prove that what everyone said couldn’t be done can be. Which is, in a final parallel, how they both got to the Senate in the first place.