WASHINGTON -- The “smart money” has come up with a new scenario for how the race for the Republican presidential nomination will wrap up.
It envisions a final, two-way contest next spring between Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.
Such a contest would be a remarkable, only-in-America matchup between two young (both are 44) first-term senators with tea party roots. Two sons of families that hail from now-Communist Cuba, competing to lead a party that has made choking off undocumented immigration central to its political identity.
Rubio and Cruz are in third and fourth place, respectively, in national polls of the nomination race. But with Election Day a year away, their rise may be more notable as vivid evidence of a deeper trend in the Republican Party: The existing order is dying at the hands of a new generation of novices and outsiders.
Two currents are intersecting:
There is no “establishment” anymore. “Outsider” candidates are in the lead and proving more durable than the “experts” thought possible. Think Donald Trump and Ben Carson, neither of whom has ever run for public office before. They are running neck-and-neck for the top spot in the polls.
On the other side are governors or former governors: Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and John Kasich. They are soiled by the fact that they have experience running the very thing the new GOP base hates: government. The more they talk about their experience, the less GOP voters want to hear from them. A resume is not an asset.
A new generation is taking over the GOP. For Republican men and women in their forties, political memory begins with the presidency of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. GOP “Gen. Xers” have no fear of or respect for the “progressive” ideas that ruled Washington from the New Deal through the presidency of Bill Clinton, a Democrat who famously declared that the “era of big government is over.” This generation starts from the assumption that the federal government (Social Security and Medicare notwithstanding) is by definition a bad influence.
Think Cruz, Rubio and Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin (age 45), the newly elected House speaker who was Mitt Romney’s running mate in 2012. Add Reince Priebus, the 43-year-old chairman of the Republican National Committee. The RNC has little power anymore, but it does have an emblematically youthful boss.
Together, the two trends are bad news for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, scion of America’s ultimate establishment political family. What once would have been a benefit (and still has been, in terms of raising money) is now a burden.
The recent release of a revelatory biography of his father, former President George H.W. Bush, has served not to elevate Jeb but to further mire him in historical controversies.
By contrast, Rubio and Cruz have little history to burden them. And besides their youth, they are outsiders by heritage and by political choice.
Although both are technically part of “government” as U.S. senators, they ritually express their distaste for the Senate and have tended to use the chamber primarily as a TV studio in which to make speeches to the GOP base.
Early on, Rubio did make one serious attempt at bipartisan legislative dealmaking as part of a so-called “Gang of Eight,” a group that sought a consensus on immigration. But the moment he began running for president, he distanced himself from the substance and the process of the gang.
Still, although Rubio was elected in the first tea party wave of 2010, he is the more “insider” of the two Cuban-Americans. He is raising money from longtime friends and supporters of the Bush family, for example. He is employing a roster of insider-ish consultants. He has sought and won support from foreign policy hawks of the “neocon” (and ardently pro-Israel) variety. As a former legislator in Florida, he has friends in both parties across the state, and is willing to admit it.
Rubio can come off as easygoing, perhaps a little too much so for the prim and censorious evangelical Christians he'll need to woo to win over the GOP base.
To be sure, he is a full-on foe of gay rights and abortion. But his home is the cosmopolitan, wide-open metropolis of Miami. He is married to a former cheerleader. He has an easy manner and a boyish, smiling visage. He is Catholic, but doesn’t wear his faith on his sleeve; he seems more religiously ardent about the Miami Dolphins football team.
Cruz, despite his similar background, is another breed entirely. His father is a evangelical convert with a preaching style that verges on the apocalyptic -- a view of the world Cruz takes to an extreme in his politics.
Through his father, as well as friends like the evangelical talk show host Glenn Beck, Cruz has close ties to the GOP’s religious wing. Only someone who believes in God and begins each day with prayer is qualified to be president, the senator said this week. If Carson falters in Iowa, look for Cruz to inherit that support.
On issues ranging from taxes to immigration, gun rights to abortion, there isn't a more zealously right-wing candidate in the field than Cruz. This week he won a “perfect” rating from the Heritage Foundation, a Washington, D.C., think tank that was influential in the Reagan era and remains the arbiter of activist conservative orthodoxy.
As that rating suggests, Cruz is a yield-nothing, take-everything type. He’d rather win a point than do a deal. A champion debater at prestigious Princeton University, he was such a stellar student at Harvard Law School that even liberal professors praised his brilliance.
Cruz, unlike Rubio, is uniformly hated by his Senate colleagues, including most Republicans. They view him as a show-off whose only goal is to shut down the institution using arcane procedure whenever he can, just to make a point.
His smile is chilly and calculating; his flashing dark eyes advertise his visceral contempt for his foes and their ideas.
But there is one factor that suggests Cruz may not be quite the outsider he claims to be. He is married to Heidi Nelson Cruz, a graduate of Harvard Business School. In addition to being one of his biggest fundraisers, she is an executive at Goldman Sachs, the famous (if not infamous) Wall Street investment house.
Cruz may hate Big Government. But, like his rivals, he needs the Big Money.