New York Times (Opinion)
By Ross Douthat
January 28, 2016
Late in October, when it was still possible to envision a somewhat normal Republican primary season, Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush had a moment on the debate stage that seemed as if it might be a turning point in the campaign.
Bush, the well-funded front-runner whose poll numbers had been sliding since the summer, came prepared to swing at Rubio over his missed votes in the Senate. Rubio, the upstart running against his former mentor, responded with a mix of grace and pity, dismissing Jeb’s attack as a desperate flail, taken because “someone has convinced you that attacking me is going to help you.”
In the month after that confrontation, Bush’s national numbers slipped into the lower single digits, while Rubio’s climbed steadily. In early December, he and Ted Cruz both had about 15 percent support in the national polls, below Donald Trump but well above all the other professional politicians in the race. It seemed as if they were rising in tandem, and that Rubio was destined to be the establishment’s preferred candidate in a three-man race with Cruz and Trump — and based on past results, the likely nominee.
But instead, Rubio hit a ceiling, while Cruz continued to climb. And despite a long series of “moments” when he was supposed to consolidate his position, the Florida senator is still basically stuck. He’s hovering just above 10 percent in national polls and in New Hampshire, trailing Cruz and Trump by a clear margin in Iowa, and still lagging Jeb in the endorsement primary.
Nobody’s sure why. Rubio has various weaknesses, but he’s well liked by Republican voters, he polls very well against Hillary Clinton, and nothing scandalous has emerged to derail him. Yet here we are just days from Iowa, and prominent Republicans are variously frustrated and confused, resigning themselves to Trump-versus-Cruz or attempting complicated bank shots to take one or both of them out … instead of doing what many people expected and simply rallying to Rubio.
Here are some possible explanations:
It’s all about immigration. In a race dominated by Trumpian nationalism, and with immigration restriction increasingly a litmus test for many conservative voters, Rubio’s role in the “Gang of Eight” immigration bill is plainly a liability. Possibly enough of a liability, in fact, to deny him the nomination.
At the same time, though, there are still lots of Republican voters who don’t consider the immigration issue a top priority, and lots of Republican donors and elected officials for whom Rubio’s “Gang of Eight” support is probably an asset. So immigration might explain why he trails Trump and Cruz in Iowa, but not why he can’t put away Jeb, Chris Christie and John Kasich.
It’s all Jeb’s fault. This is the narrative advanced by many of Rubio’s supporters, and not only them. In effect, they argue, Jeb’s campaign has become an anti-Rubio zombie operation. Even as Bush’s own numbers have remained stagnant, his “super PAC,” Right to Rise, has spent a fortune on anti-Rubio attack ads. In so doing, The Weekly Standard’s Stephen Hayes argues, Team Bush is effectively running a suicide mission against Rubio, whose only “lasting legacy” will be “its prominent role in making Donald Trump the nominee.”
This seems a little harsh (and not only because I still don’t think Trump will be the nominee). A candidacy that can’t survive a run of attack ads isn’t a candidacy destined for glory. Rubio has done less than Jeb to take the fight to Trump. And Jeb is about even with his former protégé in New Hampshire polling now, so it’s not clear that he’s just a zombie at this point.
Still, the Right to Rise onslaught is a decent explanation for Rubio’s stagnation. But not a complete one, since it’s not as though Jeb actually controls the entire Republican establishment. If his donors were really unhappy with his strategy they could desert en masse to Rubio; if leading Republican politicians felt certain Rubio was the better bet, they could counter Jeb’s ads with a wave of endorsements. But they haven’t, again despite Rubio’s higher favorables and better general election odds. Which raises the possibility that …
Rubio’s a little too conservative. Both the Republican donor class and the New Hampshire electorate, in slightly different ways, are more moderate or even liberal than the wider Republican electorate. Meanwhile, as Harry Enten of FiveThirtyEight points out, Rubio is a lot more conservative than his “great establishment hope” image currently suggests.
Moreover, his conservatism is most pronounced on social issues, which makes him culturally alien to both the libertarian and Yankee moderates of New Hampshire and the secular and socially liberal segment of the party’s donor base.
Which is why it isn’t necessarily surprising that Rubio is polling slightly better in evangelical-heavy Iowa than in New Hampshire, or that he’s having trouble putting away more moderate figures like Christie and Kasich in the latter state. It may well be, as Enten suggests, that a lot of Republican bigwigs are just much more politically and culturally comfortable with the other candidates in the establishment “lane,” and so they aren’t ready to throw in with Rubio’s piety and Tea Party-ish voting record until they have no other choice.
Then there also might be a more personal element as well …
Rubio seems a little too ambitious. He’s no Ted Cruz, whose naked self-promotion and penchant for making enemies has left him effectively running against the entire institutional party. But as Matt Yglesias of Vox notes, Rubio’s ascent has been marked by repeated acts of rebellion and opportunism — many of them successful, all of them quite normal for politicians, but condensed into a relatively narrow span of time.
The G.O.P.’s history as a royalist party is somewhat exaggerated, but it has repeatedly handed nominations to elder statesmen in years when it seems to be their turn, and the royalist tendency is naturally strongest in the party elite. It may not be only Jeb Bush’s inner circle that regards Rubio’s rise as a little swift, and his decision to run as a little premature, even arrogant. There may be a sense that he needs to prove himself with voters, to actually win a caucus or a primary, before he can lay claim to wide support.
In the quest for that support, he has one glaring problem …
Rubio’s strengths might be a bad fit for the 2016 mood. Part of the reason that pundits (myself included) have tended to rate the Florida senator highly as a candidate is that he combines a conservative record with some of the gifts of Bill Clinton circa 1992 and Barack Obama circa 2008 — eloquence, optimism, a strong personal narrative, a clear interest in domestic policy.
But in this election, many Republican voters seem to be looking for a Richard Nixon — a hard man for hard times, you might say, which isn’t really a slogan that fits the boyish-looking first term senator.
This is why perhaps — just perhaps — Rubio’s strategy of avoiding conflicts with Trump has been a strategic error. A young politician can try to project toughness all he likes, but the only way to actually prove your toughness is to fight the battle that’s right in front of you.
And for Rubio, sooner rather than too late, that might mean finding a way to fight with Donald Trump and win.
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