Republicans have shown us their future, and Democrats, if they’re smart, should be having a collective anxiety attack.
That’s the inescapable impression from the one-two punch of excellent showings by Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz in the CNBC presidential debate Wednesday night in Boulder, Colorado, and Rep. Paul Ryan’s election as speaker of the House the next day. Ryan is now second only to Vice President Joe Biden in the line of succession to the presidency, and Rubio and Cruz remain very much in the hunt for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.
All three are in their mid-40s — a generational handoff that is a striking contrast to Democrats, with their veteran band of congressional leaders and 2016 front-runners. What looks like disarray in the GOP to some analysts could just as easily be interpreted as transition. And as we’ve seen on Capitol Hill this week, the chaotic aspects of a transition can sometimes resolve in ways that produce the best outcome for Republicans and the riskiest for Democrats.
The Republican field has been dominated by real estate magnate Donald Trump and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who have never held a political office or even run for one. Governors and former governors, who usually own the outsider brand in presidential races, are struggling.
One of them, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, is hitting hard on his party’s infatuation with Trump and Carson and his concern, as he put it, that “we are on the verge, perhaps, of picking someone who cannot do this job.” His points — about fantasy budgets, scaring seniors, splitting up immigrant families — will resonate with many. But when he made them at the debate, he seemed hot and bothered and a bit angry.
If Republican primary voters come to share Kasich’s concern but not his opinion that he or another veteran governor is the best choice, the candidates perfectly positioned to benefit are Rubio and Cruz.
The two, both Cuban-American, were elected in 2010 and 2012, respectively. Like Barack Obama in 2008, they aren’t longtime senators tainted by Washington, but they do know their way around government. Rubio continually demonstrates that all the hype about his talent is not entirely hype. He is expert at deflecting criticism, dispensing charm, telling his personal story and reassuring voters. On top of that, he is a bilingual Latino from the critical swing state of Florida. He’s also a policy thinker. God knows liberals won’t agree with his ideas, but he is definitely putting out ideas.
Rubio has long been mentioned as a potential nominee. Cruz, by contrast, has just landed on my radar, because he seems to be changing in ways that might broaden his appeal. For instance, he criticized the controversial bipartisan budget and debt deal that passed the House on Wednesday, but unlike Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, another 2016 hopeful, he did not immediately vow to try to block it. That was different for Cruz, who has been a fan of filibusters, government shutdowns and other disruptive tactics. Maybe it’s a sign that he is moving on from his scorched-earth days. Or maybe he recognizes that both he and his party would be blamed for dysfunction and the GOP nominee — possibly him — punished at the polls next year.
Cruz displayed a newfound humor and self-awareness during the CNBC debate. “I’m too agreeable, easygoing,” the notorious firebrand joked when asked his greatest weakness and added more seriously, “If you want someone to grab a beer with, I may not be that guy.” When moderator Carl Quintanilla came back to him after a contentious exchange and said, “We’re clearly not having that beer you mentioned,” Cruz responded, “Then I’ll buy you a tequila or even some famous Colorado brownies.”
Fun guy. But here’s the worst part, from the Democratic standpoint: In a New Yorker article this month, Cruz sounded absolutely reasonable on foreign policy. He placed himself somewhere between Paul’s caution about military intervention and the hawkish end of the GOP spectrum, where Rubio resides with Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham. Cruz said his reference point was Ronald Reagan and his peace-through-strength approach. “Speaking for freedom is not the same thing as using U.S. military force,” he told the magazine. And “Reagan went through eight years in the presidency, and the biggest country he ever invaded was Grenada.”
This type of modulated moderation could play well in a general election, even as the Trump and Carson legions could gravitate to Cruz as the next best thing to a true outsider.
Where are the governors — practical, accomplished, knowledgeable — when you need them? This time around, nowhere. On the Democratic side, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley is not scratching against Sen. Bernie Sanders or former Sen. and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee has bowed out. As for Republicans, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry have already quit, and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former New York Gov. George Pataki have yet to ascend from the undercard debates to prime time.
Those who have made the main stage — Kasich, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Govs. Jeb Bush of Florida and Mike Huckabee of Arkansas — are getting little traction and are less likely nominees at this point than Rubio or Cruz. That’s particularly true for Bush, whose candidacy many commentators declared all but dead after a decidedly subpar performance in the Colorado debate.
Why, you are probably wondering, do I give such short shrift to Carson and Trump? Because I still don’t believe they will go the distance, even in a Republican contest that so far doesn’t look much like anything we’ve seen before. Meanwhile, Rubio and Cruz are in the wings, available to satisfy the political cravings of grass-roots conservatives who disdain Washington but ultimately may have second thoughts about nominating someone who has never been part of a government, much less run a country.