Why Rubio Can Win: His Ruthless Team Plays Petty Politics

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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The problem with 99 percent of the high-minded, optimistic Republican candidates is that they’re wimps. Or, at least, they’re not willing to do what it takes to win in the game of politics. They’re above that sort of thing, which is a form of elitism. They don’t want to lower themselves to actually doing what it takes to win in the modern era—which (unfortunately) is to attack your opponents and constantly engage in petty tu quoque arguments.

That’s not the case for [crscore]Marco Rubio[/crscore]—which is why I think he’s got a good chance of being the Republican nominee.

Yes, Rubio has an inspiring story as the son of immigrants, and yes, his rhetorical flourishes and elevated rhetoric summon us to our better angels. But you’ve got to be tough to survive as a nice guy, and the dichotomy between the candidate’s message and Team Rubio’s campaign tactics is stark. Have you seen The Godfather baptism scene? While Marco is doing the Lord’s work, his operatives are putting a bullet through Moe Green’s eye. The thing is, that’s what it takes to elect a bleeding-heart conservative. This is the business we’ve chosen.

Usually, there is a tradeoff between optimism and toughness. The optimistic guys who have the big ideas don’t relish the fight. The ideological bruisers—the demagogues “boldly” telling the base what they want to hear (the irony is that it doesn’t take much courage to tell the base what they want to hear)—usually hire Lee Atwater disciples to destroy the “nice” guys, who keep their operatives on a short leash. While the optimists have their lunch stolen, the bruisers can be shameless and conniving. Nobody seems to care (as Bill Clinton said, in politics it’s better to be “strong and wrong” than “weak and right”).

That dynamic isn’t likely to play out this time around. In recent days, Team Rubio has shown a clear willingness to play hardball. They have matched Team Cruz’s petty attacks on Rubio’s immigration reform stance with their own petty attacks on Cruz’s national security stance.

Today—just in time for the big Republican Jewish Coalition meeting in DC—Team Rubio is pushing around a Wall Street Journal op-ed that begins thus: “[crscore]Ted Cruz[/crscore]’s bid for the GOP’s presidential nomination has always rested on the proposition that he is the only ‘real Republican’ in the race. So why is the junior Senator from Texas advocating a Syria policy that seems to have been drawn from President Obama’s situation room?”

The lede tells you all you need to know about Rubio’s strategy: They realize their guy’s support for immigration reform (while noble and courageous—in my view) is a political liability. But rather than playing defense (a fool’s errand), they know the smart move is to muddy the waters—to attack Cruz for apostasy—have Republican primary voters basically conclude that it’s a wash—to have them scratch their heads and say: “Well, neither of these guys are 100 percent pure.”

It’s the smart move. It’s exactly the right strategy. And Rubio’s team of professionals are aggressively pushing it.

Let’s be clear: It would be very easy to imagine that right now Team Cruz could be mopping the floor with the affable Rubio. It’s easy to imagine Team Cruz could be meaner, nastier, and more aggressive than Team Rubio—if we were to look at the candidates and extrapolate that their campaign is a reflection of their public persona’s writ large.

Don’t let the smile fool you. Rubio has a tough side. You can see it in his eyes. He’s different from most of the squishy “kinder, gentler” mainstream conservatives patsies out there. He fights.

Note: The author’s wife previously advised Ted Cruz’s campaign for U.S. Senate.

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Matt K. Lewis