Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX)

“The truth is that Republicans are at a crossroads. What we are seeing is a surrogate battle to determine whether the GOP will be a sort of populist/protectionist party, or a more cosmopolitan and compassionate one. And if those are the two world views that will eventually clash, Cruz and Rubio are much better representatives than, say, Trump and Bush.”

Matt Lewis

Conservative stalwart Matt Lewis offers an intriguing commentary considering the real potential of a marquee showdown between Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. The junior U.S. Senators from Florida and Texas respectively enjoy competitive positions in the polls, and thus stand out as leading candidates to ascend as Dr. Ben Carson tumbles and pretty much everyone else wonders when Trump will follow. The Roll Call op-ed opens:

“The two people to watch are Cruz and Rubio,” Charles Krauthammer declared on Tuesday’s episode of Fox News’ “Special Report.” Call it wishful thinking or conventional wisdom (or both), but there is an assumption that this clash of titans might eventually occur—and I, for one, am rooting for it.

And we can skip ahead to the ending, a pretense of obvious afterthought―that both Cruz and Rubio can win the general against Hillary Clinton―long enough to remember that Lewis is, after all, a conservative pitch man. Cruz can’t win; Rubio has a chance if he can overcome the deer and headlight air of youthful inexperienceα he often demonstrates so aptly when rattling through talking points that thoroughly defy his comprehension. That is to say, we can attend the pretense of afterthought long enough to dismiss it.

Nonetheless, Mr. Lewis offers an insightful analysis that includes the benefit of also sounding reasonable:

Most people I know think a Trump candidacy would be disastrous, but there is division regarding just how freaked out we should be. Some, like statistician Nate Silver, argue that we are putting too much stock in these early polls showing Trump ahead for a variety of reasons, including the fact that “the vast majority of eventual Republican voters haven’t made up their minds yet.”

Others argue that this is fantasy. All the previous predictions about a Trump collapse were premature, and besides, he’s a paradigm-shifting candidate; the old rules no longer apply.

Having said all that, it’s not absurd to believe that voters will finally come to their senses, and that Cruz and Rubio might eventually emerge as representatives of their various “lanes” to face off in a sort of championship battle to determine who will represent the GOP in the general election.

Let us not deceive ourselves; while it is possible for Jeb Bush to hold on long enough to endure Superstorm Donald, he also seems to have inflicted enough damage against himself that his electability in the general will depend entirely on its mythical context in contest with a Clinton. Nor will Kasich or Fiorina emerge as a credible mainstream candidate to challenge the hardliners. There remains a viable question whether the extremity of Cruz or Rubio will find a centrist niche in which their regressive, bigoted platforms will find an atmosphere of legitimacy; in a year when Ohio Gov. John Kasich looks like a moderate, anything is possibleβ.

In Mr. Cruz’s case, it is very important to note that something about palling around with terrorists goes here.

It is in its own right interesting to note that Mr. Lewis never really says anything about whether Cruz or Rubio are actually qualified to be president; he strenuously avoids any discussion of policy. It is, of course, much easier to hack out such bravado about these candidates defeating Hillary Clinton if we all just skip over any questions of policy or principle. Lewis notes that, “Rubio and Cruz are both well within the spectrum of conservatism”, which ought to tell us something about how the author sees the electorate.

The key to Lewis’ analysis, once we read through the sales pitch, is a useful glimpse into what might be the emerging new Republican dynamic:

Earlier I said I was rooting for this matchup, and that’s not merely because this would be fun for a spectator to watch.

The truth is that Republicans are at a crossroads. What we are seeing is a surrogate battle to determine whether the GOP will be a sort of populist/protectionist party, or a more cosmopolitan and compassionate one. And if those are the two world views that will eventually clash, Cruz and Rubio are much better representatives than, say, Trump and Bush.

If we take the moment to consider whether we are looking at the future of internecine GOP strife, how long before we shake our heads and laugh it off because the idea that this Rubio versus Cruz is emblematic of the new establishment versus insurgency just sounds absurd?

Perhaps we should not write off Lewis’ blithe prediction about the general so quite so quickly. What if his confidence is significant of the new expectation? The difference between authoritarianism and outright murderlust is hardly an attractive range. Still, Lewis feels confident.

Really, can we just leave that at absurd? That is, must we take such a proposition seriously?


Image note: Composite of photos by John Locher/AP; Chris Keane.

α Chris Cillizza noticed it, too: “He can―and did at times Tuesday night―come across as slightly too rehearsed, the student reciting things back to the teacher from memory but without actually understanding what any of it means”.

β Even Lindsey Graham, despite the senior senator from South Carolina warmongering about Russia, which was unfortunately stupid at the time, and even less useless amid the cacophony out of Turkey. And, yes, it still seems worth keeping an eye on Mr. Graham as a potential come-lately establishment avenger; it is, after all, his raison d’être as a presidential candidate.

Cillizza, Chris. “Winners and losers from the fourth Republican debate”. The Washington Post. 10 November 2015.

Isquith, Elias. “The disturbing truth about Marco Rubio: The establishment’s favorite is running an extremist, Islamophobic campaign”. Salon. 21 November 2015.

Kaczynski, Andrew. “Graham On Putin: ‘I Would Shoot His Planes Down’ In Syria”. BuzzFeed. 11 November 2015.

Lewis, Matt. “Cruz and Rubio Wield Contrasting Political Weapons”. Roll Call. 27 November 2015.

Maddow, Rachel. “Cruz ducks questions about radical religious right endorsement”. The Rachel Maddow Show. mnsbc. 25 November 2015.

Operation Rescue. “Victory: Operation Rescue Successfully Thwarts Abortion’s Return to Wichita, Kansas”. 15 February 2015.

Tashman, Brian. “Ted Cruz Touts Endorsement Of Extreme Anti-Gay, Anti-Choice Activist Flip Benham”. Right Wing Watch. 24 November 2015.

Ted Cruz 2016. “Troy Newman, Activist Behind Planned Parenthood Videos, Endorses Ted Cruz”. 19 November 2015.

Turner, Kathleen. “Republicans’ Playbook on Women Gets Even Scarier”. The Huffington Post. 24 November 2015.

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