As far back as last summer, and as recently as last week, I told you that voters in the Republican presidential nominating contest are more responsible and less crazy than most pundits like to think. They have lived up to my hopes. That doesn’t mean the choices of those voters are optimal. Rick Santorum (the social-conservative hawk) and Rand Paul (the libertarian dove) both deserved better.
It looks like it will come down to Cruz and Rubio, so here are some hopefully constructive thoughts about each man:
Cruz gave a lousy and too-long victory speech, but concision won’t be enough to fix his rhetorical problems. Cruz comes across as way too ideological. Cruz is constantly talking about how conservative he is, and how conservative his voters are. Compare Cruz to Bernie Sanders. Sanders talks about being a progressive or a socialist or whatever, but Sanders mostly talks about health care, wages, college affordability, and other issues. Ideological labeling is a smaller part of Sanders’s rhetoric. In this, Sanders is much closer to Reagan than is Cruz. Reagan was a conservative and he didn’t hide from the label, but he mostly spent his time explaining why his ideas worked rather than why they were conservative.
Cruz also needs a broader agenda. Cruz might need a large share of Trump’s white working-class populist moderates to beat Rubio for the nomination. Any Republican will need those voters (and others besides) to win the general election. These voters don’t care how conservative Cruz is or isn’t. The only thing Cruz has offered these voters is a none-too-credible commitment to immigration restriction. It isn’t enough.
This brings me to Rubio. I should like the guy. I’m closer to Rubio than Cruz on most issues (other than immigration and foreign policy.) He has a more pleasant affect. His parents were wage-earning immigrants, and so were mine. But I just can’t stand to listen to people describe Rubio as a uniter of the party’s factions. It just isn’t true.
Rubio’s betrayal of his tea-party supporters on immigration lit the fuse on the Trump bomb. When the best-known and most highly regarded of the rebellious, tea-party senators chose to break his own promises on opposing upfront amnesty, it turned all of conventional politics into a joke. It showed that populists could win elections but that Washington elites would still steer the ship. Rubio’s failure to act as a responsible dissenting politician made the idea of Trump as president . . . not plausible exactly, but it allowed people to think of Trump as the punishment that our political class deserved.
We also have to get past this idea that Rubio is a moderate. He isn’t — for better and for worse. Cruz and Rubio are both “conservatives” to the extent that the label has any meaning for the mass of policy issues. But Rubio isn’t really a moderate on immigration either.
The Gang of Eight bill that Rubio sponsored was not a compromise. t was an extreme version of what bipartisan Washington elites wanted. It even included an incredibly unpopular expansion of future low-skill immigration.
Rubio could have stood up to the extremism of the demands of Washington elites. That doesn’t mean that Rubio had to become another Jeff Sessions. Rubio could have been a force for moderation, but he chose to shiv his own past supporters join the extremists. This alienated millions of Americans (both conservative and “moderate”) who might have rallied to Rubio and a more moderate immigration agenda.
Rubio’s support for Washington-style immigration reform did more to damage the political environment than Cruz’s government shutdowns. The shutdowns are a distant memory, but Trump is still with us. The politics of immigration is more polarized, more hostile, and more stupid than it might have been. But since the people whom he alienated are not geriatric senators, Rubio still has a reputation (in Washington) as the guy who can bring people together.