The 2016 Republican nominating contest will eventually boil down to a two-man race between a pair of Senate freshmen: Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas. That's the emerging theory advanced by a growing number of political prognosticators in recent weeks as both candidates trend upward in national polling. To wit, here's Matt Lewis during Tuesday night's presidential debate:
Tonight was a step toward the Cruz vs Rubio final act a lot of us are anxious to see.— Matt Lewis (@mattklewis) November 11, 2015
It's not hard to see the appeal of such a denouement. The prospect of two smart, energetic, fresh-on-the-scene conservatives going blow for blow on policy and personality with the party's crown at stake is exciting. Republican voters could do a lot worse than being asked to weigh which of these conservative young Hispanics is best equipped to beat Democrats' old news, baggage-laden, Ruling Class fixture in a general election. The New York Times' Ross Douthat games out how a Rubio vs. Cruz dynamic might unfold, noting that Cruz appeared to lay the groundwork for advancing an anti-Rubio case at the debate -- a preview of potential coming attractions that didn't go unnoticed by a number of sharp observers:
In several different moments we watched a preview of the way that Ted Cruz intends to go after Marco Rubio if and when the field begins to winnow and the two of them rise toward the top. Coppins cites a couple of Cruz lines on immigration and sugar subsidies that were clearly implied digs at Rubio; I would add Cruz’s stress on how his own tax and spending plan adds up (it doesn’t, really, but compared to Rubio’s it does) and his attempt to position himself in between Rubio and Paul when the two clashed on foreign policy. Add them all together and you have a clear blueprint for an anti-Rubio offensive: Attack sharply on immigration, find his Floridian weakness on corporate welfare, claim the mantle of fiscal hawkishness at home and cast Rubio as a little too Wilsonian abroad. I’m not sure what to think about the wisdom of unrolling the blueprint without going after Rubio directly. Cruz is probably wise not to explicitly attack his fellow senator just yet, but there’s something too-clever-by-half about the kind of telegraphing he’s engaged in. But still, it’s not like Rubio’s team can’t see what’s coming whether Cruz telegraphs it or not...For now, [Rubio is] smoothly returning to speech material in all his [debate] answers, and that’s working well. But he won’t be allowed to do that indefinitely; at some point Cruz will try to hold his feet to the fire, and then we’ll have a better sense of whether Rubio really deserves the “effective frontrunner” status so many of us have imputed to him...it must be said that Cruz’s positioning is very impressively calibrated at the moment. And if he gets the war with Rubio he’s clearly planning for, then regardless of the outcome we should prepare for some pretty interesting political television this winter — and perhaps this spring as well.
Cruz's 'telegraphing' grew even more explicit during a post-debate interview with Neil Cavuto in which the Texan happily discussed the prospect of a two-person battle between a conservative and a "moderate," going out of his way to imagine himself and Rubio in those respective roles. If -- if -- the nomination does come down to Rubio and Cruz, I suspect that one exchange from Tuesday evening's forum neatly illustrates each man's style and allure. Challenged by FBN moderator Maria Bartiromo on Hillary Clinton's experience and "impressive resume," both candidates took a crack at responding:
RUBIO: This election is about the future, about what kind of country this nation is gonna be in the 21st century. This next election is actually a generational choice. A choice about what kind of nation we will be in the 21st century. For over two-and-a-half centuries, America’s been a special country, the one place on earth where anyone from anywhere can achieve anything, a nation that’s been a force for good on this planet. But now, a growing number of Americans feel out of place in their own country. We have a society that stigmatizes those that hold cultural values that are traditional. We have a society where people — millions of people — are living paycheck to paycheck. They’re working as hard as they ever have, but they’re living paycheck to paycheck because the economy has changed underneath their feet. We have young Americans who owe thousands of dollars in student loans for a degree that doesn’t lead to a job. For the first time in 35 years, we have more businesses dying than starting, and around the world, every day brings news of a new humiliation for America — many the direct response — direct consequence of decisions made when Hillary Clinton was the secretary of the — of state. And so here’s the truth: this election is about the future, and the Democratic Party, and the political left has no ideas about the future. All their ideas are the same, tired ideas of the past. More government, more spending. For every issue for America, their answer is a new tax on someone, and a new government program. This nation is going to turn the page, and that’s what this election should be about, and, as I said at the first debate, if I am our nominee, they will be the party of the past, we will be the party of the 21st century.
CRUZ: And, Maria, I will note, she’s got a lot of experience, but her u have proven disastrous. If you look at foreign policy, every region in the world has gotten worse. Under her leadership, we abandon the nation of Israel. Under her leadership, radical Islamic terrorism has been on to the rise. Under her leadership, and Obama’s leadership, Iran is getting $100 billion dollars, and on the verge of getting a nuclear weapon. Everything she’s put her hand to, or has touched — and when we talk about the cronyism of Washington, Hillary Clinton embodies the cronyism of Washington. And, I’ll give you an example of that, which is the Congressional exemption from Obamacare, which is fundamentally wrong, and I’ll tell you this, if I’m elected president, I will veto any statute that exempts members of congress. The law should apply evenly to every American.
My instant reaction on Twitter:
Rubio gives big picture/generational/narrative answer on Hillary. Cruz specific & prosecutorial. #GOPDebate— Guy Benson (@guypbenson) November 11, 2015
That would be the crux of a Rubio/Cruz competition. Rubio, who's by no means averse to policy specifics, is running an aspirational and narrative-driven race, not terribly dissimilar to Barack Obama's (successful) 2008 campaign. Some denizens of Obamaland have even taken to griping about Rubio's cribbing O's "turn the page" phrase -- which ironically only resonates today because it's now Obama's page from which voters are so eager to turn. Cruz's approach is more hard-charging and prosecutorial; against Rubio, he'd launch an ideological indictment of his Senate colleague's record, while promising primary voters he'd mount a similarly aggressive effort against Hillary Clinton. Rubio would have to tread carefully in deploying countermeasures. He could critique Cruz's proposal of what amounts to a 'value added tax,' and perhaps point out that Cruz's purist image on immigration reform doesn't necessarily match with reality. But that opens the door to extra examination of Rubio's role on the failed 'Gang of Eight' immigration project, which is anathema to many conservative voters. Democrats have already demonstrated that they'd be more than happy to stoke that fire on Cruz's behalf.
On the personality and electability side, if Rubio cites Cruz's reputation for bipartisan alienation in Washington as evidence that he'd be a polarizing and ineffective chief executive, Cruz would be more than happy to remind base voters how hard he's fought against the "Washington Cartel." Rubio would have to achieve a difficult balance of carving out some discrete policy criticisms -- Cruz seems to make it a point to never be outflanked on his right by anyone -- and advancing the perception that Cruz's temperament and controversial tactics ("Senator Shutdown," etc) would impair his viability in a general election. He'd have to do all of this without stomping on his own voting record, which is strikingly similar to Cruz's in most ways, or imperiling his overarching image of the happy, optimistic warrior whose commitment to the American Dream overrides all personal ambitions or interests. If there's anyone in the field capable of threading that needle, it's Marco Rubio. And if there's anyone capable of making Rubio's task as difficult as possible by focusing relentlessly on substantive criticisms, it's Ted Cruz. It'd be a classic style vs. substance clash, but for the inherently unfair implications of that characterization to both candidates. Rubio is a savvy, likable messenger bursting with style points, but he's also extremely well-versed on policy. And just because Cruz is an Ivy League-educated debating champion doesn't mean he's a schlub in the retail politics department.
All of which is to say that, yes, a battle royale between Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz would make for absolutely fascinating political theater, in the best sense of the term. But on what grounds should this possible outcome, for which some in elite conservative circles are evidently yearning, be considered somewhat inevitable, or even all that likely? Donald Trump and Ben Carson have occupied first place in every major national poll since the beginning of July. Since early August, their combined support has hovered around 50 percent, with the other dozen candidates divvying up the scraps. This is not indicative of fleeting, flash-in-the-pan appeal. We've now gone months with virtually unchanged fundamentals, as the various spikes and swoons of lower-tier candidates have had little impact on the dominant top two. Before we get carried away, let's lay some caveats into place: Relatively few Republican-leaning voters have fully made up their minds. Ground game and turnout operations matter a lot, and we're still many weeks away from any actual voting taking place. And both Rubio and Cruz are building very formidable and well-financed political operations. That's all true.
What's also true is that in spite of several impressive debate performances and a general consensus that they're both ascendant, adding Rubio and Cruz's RealClearPolitics polling averages together produces a number that's still a few points shy of either Carson or Trump. Same deal in Iowa and New Hampshire, more or less. GOP debates have drawn record audiences. People are paying attention. And two political novices with strange political instincts and undeniable knowledge blindspots have maintained a consistent lead, week after week. Do analysts spilling gallons of virtual ink hyping the coming heavyweight Rubio vs Cruz showdown have any reason to believe that's how things will actually play out, or does their assumption rest on some version of "this outsider stuff can't possibly last"? I'll leave you with Rich Lowry picking Cruz as Tuesday's winner, followed by Frank Luntz's focus group giving it to Rubio:
Ted Cruz had a terrific night. He had a stand-out answer on immigration and wages and made his own fortune by getting into an argument with John Kasich on bank bailouts, enunciating the anti-bailout position forcefully and repeatedly (although I don’t really believe he wouldn’t bail out a major financial institution in the midst of a financial panic if he were president). He was pointed, eloquent, and, of course, very conservative. Marco Rubio was very good, as well. But I thought Rubio was slightly better than Cruz last time, and that Cruz was slightly better this time.
Relevant reality check: The WSJ's scientific-ish overnight poll showed this guy winning, followed by Rubio.