Magazine | January 25, 2016, Issue

The Good Fight

(Roman Genn)
A Cruz–Rubio showdown would electrify conservatives

One subplot of the Republican presidential-nomination battle has been an increasingly vicious and personal contest between two first-term senators, both of Cuban descent and separated by just a few months in age.

Florida senator Marco Rubio (44) and Texas senator Ted Cruz (45) are both men of superhuman ambition who have put their personal advancement over virtually everything else, including, many would argue, loyalty, wealth, and family. Both were at least thinking about running for president from the time they arrived in the Senate. Their talent and their years-long focus on reaching the White House are reminiscent of Bill Clinton’s, and it’s entirely possible that the only thing standing between each and it, aside from another Clinton, is the other.

“You interview hundreds of candidates and a few stand out, and Rubio and Cruz stood out,” says Chris Chocola, the former president of the Club for Growth, the free-market group that endorsed both Rubio and Cruz in their Senate primaries. “They knew what they believed, they knew why they believed it, and they could articulate those beliefs.”

Their ascent to the top tier of the presidential field, where they have been trading barbs, is, for conservatives, a mark of astonishing success. Cruz is now viewed as the most conservative viable candidate, while Rubio is widely considered the most viable establishment choice (although he still has major competition from Chris Christie, among others). Yet this is a simplistic and somewhat misleading way to look at a prospective match-up between the two. Rubio was born of the tea-party movement and, during his Senate race, drove the liberal Charlie Crist out of the Republican party. That he is now considered a part of the Washington establishment says a lot about the transformation of the Republican party in the Obama era. “It’s a tremendous testament to what conservatives have been able to achieve,” says Mike Needham, the CEO of Heritage Action for America, a leading conservative-activist group.

Despite their obvious similarities, Rubio and Cruz have taken different routes to the top that reflect vastly different beliefs about what the GOP needs to do to win presidential elections again and vastly different aspirations for its future.

Rubio kept his head down when he arrived in Washington and used his time to develop a wide-ranging policy platform intended to draw new voters into the Republican tent — essential work, in his judgment, if Republicans are to capture the White House again. His failed push for comprehensive immigration reform was a move to the center, an attempt to attract to the GOP those who had never before voted Republican, and it earned him the lasting distrust of the party’s base.

Cruz saw a different path that few had yet glimpsed and that many still don’t. From early on, according to a top Senate staffer, he “saw the 2016 election as just a larger-scale version of these insurgent Senate tea-party campaigns,” and he used his platform in the Senate to position himself aggressively against Washington and the White House. The apex of his Senate career so far has been the 2013 government shutdown, a reflection of his belief that Republicans need only energize their most enthusiastic supporters to win at the ballot box. If Rubio thought he could unite the party by bringing together its conservative and moderate factions with a host of innovative policies, Cruz has sought to unite it by stamping out the remnants of the Republican establishment entirely.

Though Rubio and Cruz were elected just two years apart — Rubio in 2010, Cruz in 2012 — they arrived to very different atmospheres in Washington, D.C. Rubio was elected as a part of the tea-party backlash that took the country by storm in 2010. At the time, it was virtually unheard of for sitting senators to be defeated in primary elections, though House members had been in previous cycles. Rubio’s election was a reflection of the first wave of grassroots outrage; Washington was still adjusting.

Mitt Romney’s loss in 2012 brought a genuine sea change. “I think many Republicans were not shocked that we lost in 2008,” says Dan Senor, who served as an adviser to Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan. But, he says, many conservatives “couldn’t make their peace with the 2012 loss.”

Senor refers to the “psychological aftershocks within the base of the party” that caused an all-out revolt. Republican voters began blaming the leaders of their own party — rather than Democrats and the president — for the election loss and for the country’s greater ills.

Rubio was considered a possible running mate for Romney in 2012 and served as a key surrogate for him on the campaign trail. Cruz was elected to the Senate the day Romney lost, and when he arrived in Washington, the party’s base was in open revolt against its leadership. When he was sworn into office in January 2013, he understood both that the mood of the conservative grassroots was one of hostility to Washington and that the start of an open nomination contest was just two years off.

‘Frankly, I’ve found the more reviled you are in Washington, the more they appreciate you in places like Waco, and Dallas, and San Antonio,” Cruz writes in the opening chapter of his 2015 memoir. And, he might have added, in Des Moines and Reno, Concord, and Charleston.

Cruz came to Washington to make enemies of his fellow senators, and friends — fans — among the conservative grassroots. Much of the fury that fueled the Tea Party was directed at the Bush administration, whose bailouts of the nation’s big banks had been too much even for the president’s allies in Congress to abide. (Such establishment fixtures as Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor opposed it.)

Cruz was able to harness the agitation that had built over the perceived failures of the Bush administration, Romney’s loss, and Barack Obama’s unconstrained progressive governance to create a new narrative: The battle playing out in Washington, he says, is not between Republicans and Democrats but between the elites and everybody else; not between liberals and conservatives, but between the “Washington cartel” and the American people.

Hear him on the campaign trail, on the Senate floor, or, presumably, muttering in his sleep, and Cruz is relentlessly on message. “What Ted talks about is framing the narrative, and whoever can frame the narrative wins the day,” says Brian Baker, a Republican political operative and longtime Cruz friend.

That sort of rhetoric — Washington versus the people — appealed to the portion of the party that is moved more by demonstrations of defiance than by detailed policy proposals. Which suits Cruz’s natural interests. “The big difference between the two of them,” says one Republican policy maven, “is that Rubio is just policy-minded. Cruz knows a lot, he just doesn’t think of policy in the way that Rubio does.”

A top Republican strategist familiar with Cruz’s thinking says he has no real interest in policy: “He likes to talk about political strategy and the finer points of constitutional debates — everything is a constitutional-purity debate for him.”

Cruz has used the Senate as a platform for his message, displaying willpower in the face of criticism in ways that have electrified the Republican base. There was no greater example of that than the 2013 government shutdown, which took place less than a year after he was sworn into office.

A Republican aide sympathetic to Cruz’s position on the 2013 confrontation says that Cruz genuinely did not anticipate a shutdown. Rather, the expectation was that the effort, according to the aide, “could create some leverage for negotiators to get some sort of symbolic victory where some of the [Obamacare] mandates would be defunded.”

In the wake of the shutdown, according to one Republican operative, Cruz admitted privately that his strategy had backfired. It was a rare admission, a concession that there was such a thing as overreach in his attempts to invite the scorn of GOP leaders and ignite the passions of the Republican base.

Of course, the shutdown still benefited Cruz politically. The media and his colleagues heaped derision upon him, but he wouldn’t have had it any other way. The shutdown made him the face of the anti-establishment.

But that comes with a price. “The establishment is a real thing,” says the Republican operative, and if Cruz succeeds in winning the nomination, the Republican senators he has gained so much popularity deriding will be “knifing him in the back the whole time.” The broader implication is that, while the tactics that have endeared Cruz to his supporters may help him win the nomination, they may also put him, and his party, at a disadvantage in a general-election match-up against Hillary Clinton.

Rubio made a deliberate attempt to avoid the limelight when he arrived on Capitol Hill in January 2011. He turned down hundreds of interview requests and declined an invitation to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference the month after he was sworn in. Instead, according to an aide, he spent his time reading policy papers and boning up on national issues. He also began to receive a daily intelligence briefing.

“If I want to be a real serious policymaker, I need to be informed,” he told the Gainesville Sun at the time. “I can’t just read off talking points. I need to know what I’m talking about.”

If Cruz maintained his position as an opponent of the Republican establishment, Rubio moved to fill the space between the Tea Party and the leadership of his party. In mid January 2011, he spent four days in Afghanistan and Pakistan with Mitch McConnell, then the Senate minority leader, who would eventually use his influence to help appoint Rubio to the foreign-relations and intelligence committees. Those posts would in turn help Rubio establish the credentials to become one of the party’s leading spokesmen on foreign policy.

The McConnell trip wasn’t the only symbolic step Rubio made during his first few weeks in office. Despite strong entreaties from the Senate’s new tea-party caucus, he declined to join the group after expressing concern about politicians’ co-opting the movement. Cruz allies, several in interviews for this piece, still criticize Rubio for hiring a K Street lobbyist, Cesar Conda, as his chief of staff. Another lobbyist, Sally Canfield, who had come to Rubio from the pharmaceutical industry, became his policy director.

Rubio has spent his Senate tenure working with reform-conservative (“reformicon”) wonks to craft an array of conservative policy proposals, most of which haven’t made headlines. They have served as an effective platform on which to run for president. Reformicons, and Rubio, have urged Republicans to move away from the solutions they offered to the problems of the previous generation — high income taxes, urban crime — and toward addressing today’s problems, from stagnant wages to the rising cost of higher education.

Rubio, says Yuval Levin, the editor of the reformicon policy journal National Affairs and a contributing editor of National Review, “had a habit of getting us policy-type people in his office to talk even when he wasn’t working on a bill, which is rare.” Indeed, many of his legislative proposals have been plucked directly from the major reformicon publications — his tax-reform bill from a 2010 piece in National Affairs, proposals on reforming higher education from the reformicon cri de coeur book Room to Grow, and a welfare-reform policy from a piece in this magazine.

On immigration reform, Rubio saw an issue on which good policy would also make good politics after the party suffered a loss in 2012 partly attributed to Mitt Romney’s poor showing among Hispanics. His allies say he always knew the issue would be a tough sell fraught with bitterness and controversy on both sides. But he was making a political calculation to appeal to moderates in his own party, as well as to Democrats. Rubio’s positions on immigration have been wobbly: During his tenure in the Florida legislature, he voted to grant illegal immigrants free tuition and resisted Republican efforts to enforce immigration laws more aggressively; running to the right of Charlie Crist in his Senate primary, he became an immigration hawk; and in 2013, he supported a path to citizenship for immigrants here illegally.

It was a colossal political miscalculation by a man who, despite his boyish demeanor, has proved himself a skilled infighter in situations in which many believed him to be outmatched, including the current Republican-nomination contest against his onetime mentor Jeb Bush.

All along, the Gang of Eight bill that Rubio backed had existed uneasily alongside the White House’s push for immigration reform, and Rubio continues to battle the perception that he became a pawn in a game ultimately controlled by New York Democratic senator Chuck Schumer and his allies in the White House. A Republican supporter of the immigration overhaul says it became clear at a certain point in the negotiations that the White House was essentially running the show, and he remains puzzled why Rubio seemingly couldn’t figure that out. “I think Republican primary voters are asking themselves that every day,” he says.

If the shutdown was Cruz’s moment of overreach in his attempt to become the figurehead of the Republican grassroots, immigration reform was Rubio’s own overextension in an effort to position himself as a new sort of Republican capable of uniting conservatives and moderates. But whereas the shutdown only endeared Cruz to his base, Rubio’s misjudgment on immigration seemed to threaten his national viability. At the time of the collapse of the Gang of Eight bill, many were writing Rubio’s political obituary. “I thought Rubio was done. I thought, He’ll never recover from this,” says one Republican strategist. Time will tell whether the immigration issue costs Rubio the nomination or merely remains a problem he must contend with. If the former, it may be that the candidate who has until now polled most strongly in general-election match-ups against Hillary Clinton was his own biggest obstacle to winning the nomination and confronting her.  

Cruz has never been subtle about his path to the Republican nomination. He and his strategists have long said that they won’t try to win over moderates and that the tendency of previous Republican standard-bearers to woo independents in the general election has demoralized the base, decreased Republican turnout, and ensured their defeat.

Cruz’s advisers cite recent examples to make their case: Both John Kerry in 2004 and Mitt Romney in 2012 won independent voters and still lost, while George W. Bush’s reelection-year focus on turning out the conservative base delivered him the popular-vote victory that had eluded him in 2000.

Cruz’s campaign model is not that of the Republican moderates; rather, they are taking a page from the playbook of a liberal Democrat. “We have the ability to do what Obama did in ’08 and ’12, which is to expand the base,” says a longtime Cruz friend. “And we think our base — you can’t take it for granted, and you can grow it significantly.” As Cruz himself told the New York Times, “the campaign that we are consciously emulating is Barack Obama’s 2008 primary campaign against Hillary Clinton.”

The Cruz campaign is built on the premise that he can consolidate the Right and that doing so is sufficient to win a general election. There is no doubt that he has made progress in uniting the base. Social conservatives, led by Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, have coalesced around Cruz, whose chief rivals in that camp — former Texas governor Rick Perry, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal — have dropped out of the race already.

Cruz has money (nearly $14 million on hand at the beginning of October, and much more stashed away in a cluster of super PACs) and momentum, and he has invested heavily in fieldwork. In Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada, his team boasts volunteer county chairmen in all 171 counties. It has volunteer coordinators in all 163 congressional districts in the first 24 nominating states. He has focused particular attention on the first-ever “SEC primary” (nicknamed after the regional football conference) on March 1, which includes several southern states flush with Evangelicals who have never before had the opportunity to influence the nomination process.

But some question whether his is a winning general-election strategy. “His argument is, not only do you just need Republicans to win the general, but you just need half of Republicans,” says a Republican strategist familiar with Cruz’s thinking. “It’s not terribly controversial to say we need not just Republicans, but some non-Republicans, too.”

Rubio’s theory is that a conservative can unite the Right, but that the nominee can and must attract the party’s moderates, and ultimately some Democrats, to the conservative cause. Meanwhile, it has come as a surprise to many that it is Rubio, rather than Walker, Jindal, or Perry — or Mike Huckabee or Rick Santorum — who is evidently emerging as Cruz’s chief impediment to unifying the party’s right flank.

Rubio’s advisers insist they are not ceding an inch to Cruz when it comes to chasing conservative voters, even as Rubio has become a leading establishment candidate, earning the support of top party donors, including hedge-fund billionaires Paul Singer, Cliff Asness, and Ken Griffin. “We are running in the conservative lane,” says a top Rubio adviser.

While establishment candidates in the past have had to drag the conservative base along with them, Rubio’s team looks at it the other way around. “The winner of this race,” says the Rubio adviser, “is going to be somebody in the conservative lane that has the ability to take voters, whether they are establishment or center-right, in some cases holding their noses,” and win their support. “Nobody other than Marco has the ability to do that,” he says.

Of course, the Cruz forces see it differently, and center-right candidates, including Chris Christie and Jeb Bush, have been hitting Rubio. And a significant obstacle to the emergence of this race is Donald Trump, who continues to lead national polls. Should it fully materialize, though, a Cruz–Rubio showdown would be epic for the Right. “If it comes down to a Cruz–Rubio race, it’s a huge win for the conservative movement,” says Wesley Goodman, the former executive director of the Conservative Action Project, an umbrella organization for conservative-activist groups and a candidate for state representative in Ohio. “I think most people will be with Cruz but secretly jumping up and down with excitement” about having Rubio as a backup.

The two candidates represent starkly different options for Republican voters about the party’s approach to politics, to policy, and to winning elections. Ultimately, a battle between them is a struggle over what sort of conservative, both temperamentally and ideologically, is a better standard-bearer for the Republican party now and in the future.

– Tim Alberta contributed to the reporting for this piece.

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