Gerson: Rubio and Cruz, contrasting leadership

Michael Gerson
Michael Gerson

WASHINGTON – The GOP front-runners who did not melt down into an oleaginous puddle of self-pity, delusion and poor sportsmanship — the winners of the compos mentis caucus — are more different than their similar policy views would indicate. Both Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz are social and economic conservatives, and products of the tea party revolt. But they represent two entirely different approaches to the gathering and use of power.

Each had a defining moment in their rapid rise. For Rubio, it was the Gang of Eight's attempt to pass comprehensive immigration reform. Rubio now presents this as the ancient past, but I'm old enough to remember those days of yore in 2013 and 2014. Rubio was determined to make a mark by improving a dangerously broken immigration system and, not coincidentally, by helping the GOP move past a debate it was losing in a spectacularly damaging fashion. (Under the flag of "self- deportation," Mitt Romney had been recently crushed by 44 points among Latinos.)

The role played by Rubio as the rightward-most member of the Gang of Eight should actually allay some conservative concerns. Rubio pushed for an enforcement-first approach and a move away from chain migration. His main Democratic partner, Chuck Schumer, was stingy with concessions that might have provided more political cover. Rubio was the last of the hated eight to sign on but decided, in the end, that the bill was an improvement.

Then came the deluge: the Central American unaccompanied minor crisis, a conservative talk-radio rebellion and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's primary loss to a tea party unknown. Rubio was savaged as an example to the others.

But in his ill-fated immigration reform effort, Rubio demonstrated his approach to building influence: Master the policy details, work hard, push in a conservative direction, attempt to persuade even bitter critics and accept incremental progress.

Cruz's main moment on the national stage was the government shutdown of 2013. Cruz and his allies argued: Congress, if it really, really wanted to — if it only had the guts and principles — could stop implementation of the Affordable Care Act unilaterally. So funding the government was tantamount to supporting Obamacare.

There were a few problems with this strategy. First, it could not work. It is not legally possible for Congress to defund an entitlement by blocking discretionary spending. Second, anyone with a smidgeon of knowledge about the legislative process knew it could not work — not that it was very difficult, but that it was impossible — which made Cruz's argument deceptive.

Who did this manufactured standoff benefit? Elements of conservative talk radio and the Internet that gain listeners and drive traffic by baiting the base. Tea party groups that use confrontation as a fundraising ploy. Conservative direct-mail firms that depend on a steady supply of controversy. And Cruz's email list, which swelled along with his presidential ambitions.

Cruz became identified with a tea party establishment (which is also an industry) that acts as a parallel avenue of influence to the Republican Party. Together, Cruz and his tea party allies set out a false construct to make the GOP — when it could not accomplish an impossibility — look bad in the eyes of the conservative base. Then tea party groups ran attack ads against Republicans who opposed the shutdown, accusing them of effectively supporting Obamacare.

This is the main reason, according to my conversations with top Capitol Hill Republicans, that Cruz is so intensely disliked. Those who had been in the trenches fighting Obamacare were accused of selling out by a transparently self-serving latecomer.

But the problem for Republicans was more than hurt feelings. President Obama found it easy to exploit the chaos Cruz created, making the Republican majority look simultaneously weak and radical. A paralyzed caucus proved unable to offer a positive agenda. Cruz was deceptive in a way that benefited himself and was bound to hurt the conservative cause.

This is not the first time a senator has grandstanded at the expense of his colleagues. But it is a measure of political character when such grandstanding is elevated to strategy, involves untruths and undermines conservative goals. Cruz has shown the ability to effectively motivate one-third of the Republican base with these niche marketing tactics. He has yet to show a talent for uniting the entire GOP (and a slice of independents) against the Democrats.

Rubio's loss on immigration reform spoke well of his ability to appeal broadly in the general election and govern effectively as president. Cruz's success in forcing a partial shutdown demonstrated only a talent for self-serving controversy.

Michael Gerson is a columnist for The Washington Post.