Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make the Republican establishment’s favoured candidate for President.
In a TV debate on 28 October, Marco Rubio eviscerated Jeb Bush, the previous standard-bearer of the GOP’s more sensible wing. Mainstream opinion is loath to acknowledge that Donald Trump could ever possibly be right, but his description of the younger Bush brother as a “low-energy person” is perfect. In the debate Jeb made an embarrassingly weak attempt to salvage his lacklustre campaign by scoring a cheap point against his former protégé Rubio. He tried to lambast him for his absences from the Senate. “Marco, when you signed up for this, this was a six-year term, and you should be showing up to work,” Bush said. “I mean, literally, the Senate – what is it, like, a French work week.” This tacky, clichéd example of what the French themselves call le frog-bashing was funny for all the wrong reasons. Not only was it delivered with supreme awkwardness (Bush trying to joke is like Gordon Brown trying to smile – and as Russell Howard put it, “every time Gordon Brown smiles, a fairy dies”), but the line also provoked an outraged response from the French Ambassador to the US – which in turn precipitated a cringe-inducing grovelling from Bush: “My God, I totally insulted an entire country – our first ally, that helped us to become free as a nation. And I apologise. That did a huge disservice to France.”
But in the moment, live in front of the cameras, Rubio shot back with an assassin’s rhetoric. “I don’t remember you complaining about John McCain’s voting record. The only reason why you’re doing it now is because we’re running for the same position, and someone has convinced you that attacking me is going to help you.” At this point Bush stumbled into speech, but Rubio cut him off, turning to the camera as he declared: “My campaign is going to be about the future of America – it’s not going to be about attacking anyone else on this stage. I will continue to have tremendous admiration and respect for Governor Bush.” Bush’s campaign was already in the doldrums by this point – in Iowa his staff canvassed 70,000 voters by phone, but found only 1,281 Jeb supporters.
However, in emphasising that Bush made his attempted jibe “because we’re running for the same position”, Rubio cemented the image of Jeb as a classic establishment politician – doing whatever he can to get into the White House, and motivated only by a sense of entitlement. In the current climate, Rubio’s put-down was perfect for firing the last nails into the coffin of Jeb’s campaign. American loathing of ‘Washington’ – of notions of the political class and ‘old’ politics – has reached new heights. The Pew Research Center finds that 74% of Americans believe that most elected officials put their own interests ahead of those of the country – while a mere 19% trust the government most or all of the time (this figure was 77% in the early 1960s). And no one can look more ‘Washington’ than the lacklustre, uncharismatic, blue-blooded son and brother of two former Presidents.
That put-down in the third Republican TV debate marked the transition from Bush to Rubio as the great hope. The American intelligentsia is full of desire for the victory of a relatively moderate GOP candidate in the nomination race. Shortly after Rubio’s grand performance against his former mentor, the New Yorker published a profile. It is not unequivocal in its praise, yet its overall note is made clear in the opening paragraph, which notes, for example, that even “in his twenties, as an obscure Republican state legislator, Rubio exhibited such innate political skill”. The New York Times went even further, with columnist Ross Douthat waxing lyrical about how “impressive” Rubio’s ideas are, and jumping from this to a supreme example of wishful thinking. “I think he’s the real front-runner, and I predict that he will win,” Douthat declared. Then at the end of the piece, he poses a couple of rhetorical questions and gives a similarly tautological answer: “Shouldn’t a few more debate-watchers be saying to themselves, and then to pollsters: The Donald is fun and I admire Carson, but let’s get real: I’m going to vote Rubio? I think they will. I predict they will.” This belief in the future success of Rubio’s campaign is mirrored on this side of the Atlantic. The Times editorial on 16 December, lamenting Trump’s disgraceful comments on Muslims entering the US, made the offhand assertion that it is “likely that Republicans will coalesce around a mainstream candidate such as Marco Rubio”. The message is constant: Trump may be riding high at the polls at 35% of the Republican voters, but somehow the party will come to its senses and make Rubio its candidate.
Is Rubio the heir to Nixon at his best?
On paper, they have cause for optimism. Rubio is the only candidate who can bridge the gap between the moderate and hard-line wings of the GOP. In this respect, he seems an analogue to Richard Nixon who, until Watergate, was an extraordinarily successful political operator whose ambition conquered seemingly insurmountable obstacles. A key factor in Nixon’s landslide electoral victories in 1968 and 1972 was his ability to unite the two wings of the party when it was racked by factionalism. An intifada among the Republican base against the party’s dominant mode of Eisenhower centrism swept Barry Goldwater to victory in the 1964 primaries. Uncompromising in his desire to strip back the state and slash taxes, combined with a militarily aggressive anti-communist foreign policy, Goldwater used the right wing of the party base in the West and South to conquer the ‘establishment’ candidate Nelson Rockefeller, who owed his support to the party’s centrist members – the ‘Rockefeller Republicans’ predominantly based in the Northeast. This led to a showdown with President Lyndon Johnson in the 1964 Presidential election – a contest summed up by Goldwater’s slogan: “In your heart, you know he’s right” and the Johnson campaign’s response: “But in your guts, you know he’s nuts.” Johnson won by a landslide.
But despite the result of the 1964 battle for the White House, Goldwater’s supporters remained a powerful force in the Republican Party. To their rise we can trace the genesis of the Tea Party and the groundswell of support for Trump. Yet Nixon united them with the still-powerful Rockefeller Republicans, the wealthy WASPs of the Northeast in favour of moderate politics calibrated to win the centre ground. His liberal economic policies – encapsulated in his famous statement: “We’re all Keynesians now” – appealed to both centrist Republicans in the Northeast and swing voters throughout the country. Yet Nixon combined this with his disreputable ‘Southern strategy’, in which the Republicans emphasised support for ‘state’s rights’ – to do as they wish regardless of federal government legislation – to white Southern voters opposed to the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Disgraceful though it was, this message gradually furthered the realignment of the South from the Democrats to Republicans, allowing Nixon to extend the GOP’s right-wing base throughout the region.
Rubio’s policy positions comprise a similar strange combination of the morally shameful and pragmatically sensible. He has won Tea Party support with socially reactionary stances like opposition to abortion even in cases of rape and incest. As the New Yorker noted, policies such as this, his opposition to gay marriage and to restoring US diplomatic ties with Cuba have earned him the description un joven viejo (a young fogey) in Spanish-language American political discourse. But on other issues, Rubio’s thinking is markedly different to that of hardline conservative Republicans. He has even won praise from the fiercely left-wing commentator Michael Tomasky for paying attention to “topics that conservatives often leave to liberals”, such as higher education. In light of all this, it seems Rubio could create the same bridge between the GOP right and swing voters that Nixon built as he swept to power in ’68. The Wall Street Journal recently produced an excellent analysis of swing voters of the 2016 Presidential elections. It found that Republicans have a core vote of 21% of the electorate, while for Democrats this figure is – significantly – a bit higher at 25%. That leaves 54% up for grabs, but within that, the Democrats have no cause for complacency now or in years to come. With a candidate like Rubio, the GOP have the chance to take the White House in 2016 and win the key voters of the future; the WSJ shows that many Hispanic voters and young voters of all ethnicities are nowhere near as solidly Democrat as they are frequently perceived to be.
Certainly, Rubio has original policies on issues that appeal to voters outside the Republicans’ base. His plan to create a second child tax credit of $2,500 (£1,676) in addition to the current $1,000 (£671) tax credit for children would constitute roughly $60 billion (£40 billion) of extra federal government support for low income families. Moreover, Rubio has put higher education at the heart of his campaign – while this issue is completely ignored by the vast majority of the entire GOP. He has proposed a new system of repayment of student loans based on ability to pay similar to the British one, preventing graduates on low pay from being saddled with debt for years. In addition to that, he has outlined a bold scheme in which investors would pay for fees of particularly economically promising graduates, in exchange for dividends paid from their later salaries.
By the standards of any other political party, a candidate for the country’s top office setting out this smattering of new ideas would look only mildly impressive. But in the GOP of today, it shows a praiseworthily rare willingness to reach out to voters very different to the classic Republican supporter – the old, white reactionary. What is more, as a prospective first Hispanic President, Rubio has strong potential to broaden the GOP’s demographic appeal. The Hispanic-American ethnic group is not homogeneously Democrat-leaning, as Cuban-Americans tend to be staunchly Republican. And, as mentioned before, the Wall Street Journal’s analysis suggests that, as an overall group, they are far from firmly within the Democrat camp – their votes are very much up for grabs. Nevertheless, overall the Republicans won just 27% of the Hispanic vote in the 2012 Presidential election. This makes it is urgently necessary for the Republicans to reach out to them.
The rage of the Republican right
It is thus clear that Rubio would make an excellent Republican candidate for President against the inevitable Democrat nominee, Hillary Clinton. But to suggest that this means he will win the nomination is a non sequitur. All of Rubio’s positive qualities, fawned over by the East Coast political commentators, are anathema to the Republican base. Rubio will lead the field of the relatively sensible candidates. Bush, Christie and Kasich will trail far behind him. But the nomination will go to either Trump or Ted Cruz (a lot more articulate, but with similarly outrageous positions). Why? Because most of the GOP base who will actually turn out and vote in the primaries agree with them. Rasmussen Reports polling finds, for example, that 66% of likely Republican voters agree with Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims entering the US. His bullishly anti-immigration stance is even more popular among Republicans – 78% believe that it is “too easy to get into the United States”. Extensive polling by CBS and the New York Times puts Trump at 35% of the vote, with a whopping lead over Cruz, at second place on 16%. Rubio is at a mere 9%. The qualities that make him so attractive – the sharp charisma that destroyed his former mentor Jeb Bush in the third TV debate; his unparalleled ability to combine strongly social conservative attitudes with strong appeal to the centre ground – they count for nothing.
At this point the reader can be forgiven for interjecting: what makes this Republican contest so different to the ones before? What about the early favourite effect? Romney was third this time four years ago, and the notoriously irascible right-winger Newt Gingrich had a monstrous poll lead. In the preceding contest, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani was the frontrunner for the first half of 2007 – even though now he looks far too moderate to be remotely electable. The former Baptist preacher Mike Huckabee stormed to victory in the first primary, sweeping the Iowa caucuses with a landslide – even though at the time he appeared wildly unelectable in a Presidential contest against pretty much any Democrat, while now he just looks like one of the least charismatic of a plethora of heavily conservative GOP candidates. In both of those contests the same thing happened: moderation eventually prevailed, with McCain and Romney winning the respective nominations.
But now the situation is different. The obstinate rage of voters on the Republican right has gone from the simmering to the explosive. They held their noses and voted for McCain against Obama. They held their noses and voted for Romney over Obama – even though the former Governor of Massachussetts was “resist[ed] […] furiously, despite the fact that he was defending no positions that they disagreed with” – to cite a brilliant analysis of the long-term decline of moderation in the GOP in the New Republic. Their animus against him stemmed instead from “conservatives’ suspicion that Romney did not actually believe what he was saying”. Such was the drive for hardline right-wing ideology even at this point. However, after all that nose-holding for candidates they disliked – all in the name of beating Obama – the GOP right got nowhere. Instead, over the past four years they have seen social change move inexorably forward: for example, same-sex marriage legalised in every state, and continued mass immigration and demographic shifts leading to children under five belonging to non-white ethnic groups becoming the majority in that age range in 2014. For the swathes of reactionary, predominantly white voters who will vote in the Republican primaries, this is the fuel of rage. Hence the appeal of Ted Cruz and, especially, Donald Trump. Their sunny self-confidence in hardline policies allows those voters to transform that rage into optimism. Trump speaks with full certainty in asserting that he will, for example, build a wall at the border and make Mexico pay. Meanwhile, Cruz states with equal assurance that, if only all of America’s evangelical Christians turned out to vote, they could make their social views a political reality.
The jewel in the crown of Rubio’s appeal is his potential to be a Nixon figure – to bridge the divide between, on the one hand, swing voters and the moderate ‘establishment’ Republicans and, on the other, the GOP base. But that potential cannot be realised, because the divide has expanded to impossible proportions.