Ted Cruz has convinced me of three things in his short career:
1. He's a slippery, unlikable, untrustworthy jackanapes that I can never support.
2. He's going to adopt and forcefully advocate for policy ideas I believe in.
3. He is running the smartest campaign in the Republican presidential race. (Damn it.)
He has a path too.
Even with his national polling lead, Donald Trump still seems to be hitting a ceiling in the race. That means one of the other candidates will likely beat him by consolidating support among anti-Trump Republicans. The best bets look like Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. But is it really fair to equate the two? Cruz has already surged ahead of Donald Trump in Iowa. He is polling second in New Hampshire and South Carolina (though far behind Trump, admittedly). Cruz is better positioned than Rubio in the polls and is consistently getting the better of Rubio each time they jockey for position.
Let's take each part in turn.
First Trump, who has been bleeding support over to Cruz in Iowa. You can see why in Cruz's ad "Invasion" which features mostly white and black characters in office wear hopping over a fence and desperately crossing a river in the desert. It asks the viewer to imagine the politics of immigration if it were bankers and lawyers crossing the border. Cruz narrates: "Or if a bunch of people with journalism degrees were coming over and driving down the wages in the press, then we would see stories about the economic calamity that is befalling our nation." It's a funny ad in which Cruz promises a "wall that works." It's able to invoke the chaos of America's immigration problem, without the kind of images California's governor Pete Wilson got called a demagogue for using. Like the candidate, the message is populist, clever, and perfectly anti-Washington. It doesn't make you feel slimy for agreeing with it.
Next up, Rubio, who has engaged Cruz by trying to enhance his own supposed advantage on foreign policy. Of the USA Freedom Act, Rubio recently said, "If ISIS had lobbyists in Washington, they would have spent millions to support the anti-intelligence law that was just passed with the help of some Republicans now running for president." One of those Republicans is Ted Cruz. It's a wild attack to suggest a law Congress passed is what ISIS wants. Because it was supported by some of his closest Senate colleagues, like Utah's Mike Lee, it also does collateral damage.
Cruz has been direct and effective in countering Rubio here. In the past I've suggested that candidates facing Hillary Clinton should talk about her leading role in advocating military intervention in Libya. Ted Cruz is already linking Marco Rubio to the disaster there — and to Democrats. "Senator Rubio enthusiastically supported Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in toppling the government in Libya," Cruz said, "The result was Libya became a lawless war zone governed by radical Islamic terrorists and that has profoundly endangered our national security."
Cruz's lines on these issues, like many of his lines, feel practiced. But practice makes perfect. And the more-in-sorrow tone of Cruz's criticism of Rubio is right on pitch, "We shouldn't engage in the kind of military adventurism that has characterized Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, and sadly, far too many establishment Republicans including Marco Rubio."
Cruz spokeswoman Alice Stewart was even more acid:
So Rubio's foreign policy and national security strategy is to invade Middle Eastern countries, create power vacuums for terrorist organizations, allow their people to come to America unvetted, give them legal status and citizenship, then impose a massive surveillance state to monitor the problem," [The Guardian]
That's a devastating line of attack in the GOP primary.
And it has the virtue of being utterly true. Rubio is a candidate who embodies a Washington consensus that believes U.S. leaders, by virtue of their merit and good intentions, can positively reshape the body politic of just about any nation if we just ship enough firepower into moderate-enough rebels. At the same time this consensus holds that securing the border of our own country is a hopeless and immoral effort. Cruz is willing to call out Rubio in precisely these terms. It's glorious.
Until you remember that you are an irredeemable Cruz-hater. Like me.