Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Why Ted Cruz deserves a thank-you letter from Marco Rubio

Ted Cruz, smoke bomb for Marco Rubio (photo: Ted Cruz for Senate)

Winning presidential candidates are many things, but one of the most underrated is "lucky."

Even if you're a spectacular candidate, you need David Stern to pick your envelope. The nation's mood has to fit your temperament, your strongest opponent needs to back out, world headlines have to fit your narrative.

When it comes to luck, Marco Rubio has led a pretty charmed political life, and one of those newest charms is Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who's done more to further Rubio's presidential hopes this year than anyone else.

There are two big reasons why.

1. Cruz distracts the Left.

For a few months, it seemed the Left had its sights on Rubio, particularly after he demurred on a question about the age of the earth by saying, "I'm not a scientist, man."

That bombshell left editors scrambling and reporters working overtime.

Here are the outlets that reported on Rubio's answer: ABC News, CBS News, The New York Times, CNN,  Washington Post, Huffington Post, Slate, Politico, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, The Hill, USA Today, Business Insider, Salon, The Daily Mail, Mediaite, The LA Times, The Hollywood Gossip, and that's just a start.

Even The Hollywood Gossip reported on Rubio's age-of-the-earth comments 

Rubio's initial comments prompted the first wave of reporting and the first wave of commentary, then Rubio's inevitable clarification prompted the second wave of reporting about that clarification and, finally, folks indulged in yet another round of commentary about the clarification.

That led to conservative groans that Rubio was about to be be crazified by the Left.

Fox Nation ran, "Left Runs Wild with Rubio 'Earth' Comment,"  Legal Insurrection argued that the "crazying of Marco Rubio" had begun, Matt Lewis wrote that the Left was trying to "Palinize" Rubio, and Alex Pappas called out the media for being "in full freak-out mode" over the comments.

It seemed like were headed for a four-year rinse and repeat that could, ultimately, maim Rubio and destroy his presidential hopes. After all, controversy can be exhausting for everyone, as Sarah Palin's rise and fall showed.

But then something happened.

This other young, Cuban American, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, started to annoy the Left even more than Rubio, even though he wasn't an immediate presidential threat like Rubio.

Cruz was compared to Joseph McCarthy during Chuck Hagel's confirmation hearings, he scrapped it up with Dianne Feinstein over the Constitution and guns, he earned the contempt of the Morning Joe panel, and he even introduced Sarah Palin at CPAC by saying something she'd no doubt say about herself -- that she "drives the mainstream media bat crap crazy."

Oh, and one more thing, he's from Texas!

The low-hanging fruit was practically touching the ground. Joseph McCarthy and McCarthyism trended, it suddenly wasn't cool to question your elders anymore (James Dean would've never talked to Dianne Feinstein that way!), and Marco Rubio's name was emphatically replaced on the Left's hit list by Ted Cruz's.

Cruz calls all the criticism proof that he's doing something right, so he'll keep at it, and he's too irresistible a target for the Left, so they'll keep firing at him.

Meanwhile, the Hispanic who's a truer threat to the Democratic party, rolls by.

2. Rubio looks moderate by comparison.

Cruz and Rubio will always be compared with one another.

They're the GOP's biggest Hispanic stars, they're eloquent, they're in their early 40's, they're in the Senate, they've got presidential candidate written all over them.

But in ideology and temperament, Rubio is the more moderate of the two.

Nowhere is that clearer than on the immigration debate, where Rubio has joined hands with Chuck Schumer and Robert Menendez to push for immigration reform, while Cruz has called the effort "profoundly unfair."

(There are a few more differences, as well. Cruz was one of just 18 Republicans to support Rand Paul's budget, which would eliminate the Departments of Education, Commerce, Energy, and HUD, set a 17% flat tax, and discard the capital gains tax. In other words, be a 60 second, general election debate question. Rubio, smartly, voted "No.").

But here's the important thing -- despite managing to be a bit more moderate than Cruz, Rubio's maintained his cred with conservatives.

He's currently drawing his strongest support in polls from those calling themselves "conservative" and "very conservative", and Rand Paul and Paul Ryan's support for immigration reform gives him cover for his efforts on immigration.

Then there's this: Nate Silver recently ran a Nate Silver study suggesting that Rubio would be the most conservative GOP presidential nominee since Barry Goldwater.

Thus, Rubio's conservative cred is, for the time being, intact.

If he needs anything going forward, it's more credibility with moderates, and in that case, it's helpful to be continually painted as the more moderate of the two GOP Hispanic stars, which he is and always will be.

So, at this point in time, Cruz has been enormously helpful for Rubio.

The big question going forward, though, is whether Cruz starts to suck up so much oxygen and fire up so many tea partiers that Rubio actually looks small by comparison. That's a very real possibility, but for now, Cruz has been a pleasant, little smoke bomb for Rubio.