The Iowa caucus results left me with some dark thoughts. While Ted Cruz won, second-place Donald Trump and third-place Marco Rubio are clearly the media's two favorite candidates, albeit in very different ways.
Trump and Rubio. Just what the Republican Party needs: a choice between insulting Muslims at home and using military force against them abroad.
This may be the most powerful case for conservatives to support Cruz: At least he would save us from Rubio and Trump.
Hyperbolic, I know, especially since I do agree that assimilation has been a challenge in Western countries that have accepted large numbers of Muslim immigrants, and that there is a legitimate military component to the war on terrorism. But Trump's blunderbuss approach to Muslim immigration and Rubio's force-friendly foreign policy are overreactions at best and entirely counterproductive at worst. They are also illustrative of the dilemma a Trump-Rubio race for the GOP nomination would pose, and why Cruz may well be our best option.
I know that on the surface, there is a lot to like about Rubio's candidacy. The freshman senator from Florida seems like a nice guy and his supporters are generally nice too. Moreover, as a relatively young Latino candidate, Rubio presents a fresh face for a party in which too many Americans feel unwelcome. While Trump's appeal to struggling working-class whites and disaffected Republicans who believe their party leaders ignore them is important, he also clearly compounds some of the GOP's problems reaching out beyond its traditional demographic core. The billionaire does one form of outreach at the expense of the other.
Rubio is different. In his person and campaign pitch, he offers voters something new. That's especially important in a campaign where the Republican nominee is likely to face an older Democratic nominee who is a throwback to the 1990s and is already experiencing problems recreating the Obama coalition, especially its appeal to younger Democrats. (The alternative, who is appealing to those younger Democrats, is a septuagenarian socialist.)
Yet for all Rubio's exhortations for eschewing the politics of yesterday, he doesn't seem to have learned many lessons from George W. Bush's presidency. Yes, he is tougher on domestic spending, though one worries that what his entitlement reforms will save his military adventurism will wind up spending. And he has admirably partnered with Mike Lee on some interesting legislative initiatives. But on big questions like war and immigration, he sounds like Bush 2.0. His campaign announcement knocked Democratic decrepitude but contained few policy prescriptions that would have been out of place in a conservative politician's speech in the 1980s.
And what of Trump? He is not only a blowhard and a bit of an arrogant jerk, but his campaign has attracted some real nasty pieces of work to boot. Yes, there are well-meaning Trump enthusiasts. And as someone who voted for Ron Paul twice I understand the peril of judging a candidate or political movement by its most unhinged internet followers. But as Trump's favorite book tells us, by their fruits ye shall know them (Matthew, not Two Corinthians).
Trump does seem to understand that the Bush way of dealing with the Middle East and the American homeland, especially as it pertains to Iraq and immigration, went horribly wrong. And while some of his alternatives may be equally flawed in the opposite direction, it does add some needed perspective to the conservative movement's consternation about Trump's pre-Iowa poll numbers. Indeed, while I agree with virtually every word of National Review's anti-Trump symposium, it's hard to suppress the sense that conservatives who mostly thought the Bush administration was wonderful are getting a taste of the dismay I felt during those years.
"Where was this unified conservative outrage over the bank bailout in 2008?” asked the columnist Charlie Hurt. “Where is the unified conservative outrage over launching a trillion-plus dollar war paid for with nothing but debt, where is the outrage over Republican politicians who come along and supported amnesty?"
Where indeed. As it happens, Rubio was a bit better on that bank bailout than Trump. But on the other two issues? When Jeb Bush was getting beaten up for refusing to concede the Iraq war was a mistake, Rubio said he wouldn't have invaded knowing there were no weapons of mass destruction. But he's made more public statements suggesting he thinks withdrawing from Iraq was a bigger error than invading in the first place and he's been supportive of repeating the regime change experiment in Libya and Syria.
Similarly, Rubio has disavowed his Gang of Eight immigration plan, arguing that the threat of ISIS entering the United States has changed everything. But the immigration system's national security implications were evident long before he took his earlier position in 2013. And when he says we have been trying to solve our country's immigration problem for 30 years, he omits the fact that amnesty passed 30 years ago.
Neither Rubio nor Trump is the champion of true conservatives. Fortunately, there is a third top-tier candidate in the race, the one who actually won Iowa. I have my misgivings about him too, especially since we no longer have Rand Paul in the race to keep him honest on libertarian issues.
I'm not sure I will vote for him. But avoiding a Trump versus Rubio race is about as powerful a case for Cruz as I can imagine.