A Politico cover story perfectly encapsulates the bizarre, insular world of the D.C. political establishment. The article purports to take readers behind the scenes of the strategic machinations of the Marco Rubio campaign.
Although Rubio’s staff clearly cooperated, and possibly instigated, the story, the only sensible conclusion one can draw is that the Rubio campaign is struggling to adjust to the big leagues of Presidential politics.
It is a fairly basic rule of thumb that campaign staffs should always make political stories about the candidate, not themselves. Barely 100 words into the story, however, the reader introduced to no fewer than three top aides to Rubio. Worse, the story is devoted to chronicling an allegedly brilliant trap the three had set for one of Rubio’s rivals.
It ought to go without saying that campaign staff should ascribe any positive developments in a campaign to the candidate’s strengths or insights. Obviously, staff have a large role in developing and executing a campaign, but publicly this should always be subordinate to the candidate. Did the staff who leaked this story want to profile Marco Rubio or themselves?
Read the article, you’ll learn that was a rhetorical question.
Most political campaigns are surrounded by people who seek the limelight for themselves. On its own, this Politico story is part of a sad legacy of campaign advisors who try to use an election to raise their own personal profile.
This article, though, creates an entirely new chapter of the genre because it chooses to highlight a strategy that can only be described as inane. The “trap” supposedly hatched by the Rubio staff was to pick an arcane fight over technicalities of a bill that itself represents an existential threat to Rubio’s candidacy.
One of the biggest obstacles to Marco Rubio winning the Republican nomination was his decision to co-sponor the infamous “Gang of 8” immigration reform bill. Written primarily by Sens. Dick Durbin and Chuck Schumer, the legislation provided a quick path to amnesty for millions of illegal immigrants with the barest fig-leaf of border protections far into the future.
Rubio took the lead on the effort just months after President Obama won reelection, at a time that the D.C. Republican party establishment was desperate to enact some kind of immigration reform. It represented a complete misreading of the public and, especially, the Republican base.
Just over a year later, Republicans would thunder into a Senate Majority, largely by campaigning against the very amnesty provisions contained in Rubio’s bill.
Recognizing that the amnesty legislation currently represents a challenge to Rubio’s ambitions, the Rubio campaign staff, according to Politico, has chosen to actually use this legislation against one of his chief rivals, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. Their “smoking gun” was an amendment to the Gang of 8 bill proposed by Cruz that would have allowed legalizing illegal immigrants but permanently blocked them from becoming citizens.
Politico sets the scene in Rubio’s headquarters when Cruz said during the most recent debate that he didn’t support legalization:
In that moment, Rubio campaign manager Terry Sullivan, top adviser Todd Harris and communications director Alex Conant recognized what they’d accomplished because they’d been planning this exchange all along. Not only had Cruz just contradicted his own statements from 2013, he’d used words that gave them the opening they had been wanting to turn their rival’s anti-establishment narrative on its head.
So, Rubio’s “trap” for Cruz was to compare his stated position to a hostile legislative amendment filed to a proposal he was opposing.
“This was an attempt to kill the bill,” Sen. Chuck Schumer, co-author of the Gang of Eight bill said of Cruz’s amendment. “And there was no doubt at the time that Senator Cruz knew it would do exactly that.”
What Cruz understands is that the goal of Sens. Schumer, Durbin and other Democrat amnesty supporters is not to bring 11 million illegal immigrants humanely “out of the shadows,” but to turn them into voters. Cruz’s amendment exposed that truth.
The particularly inane part of the Rubio staff’s strategy is that they are choosing to focus on complicated, inside-baseball legislative machinations around legislation that was sponsored by Rubio and hated by an overwhelming majority of Republicans.
Rubio’s campaign ought to focus on foreign policy and try to forget the Senator ever embraced amnesty in the first place. When the chief opponent of Rubio’s amnesty legislation, Sen. Jeff Sessions, publicly lists Cruz as an ally against amnesty, no one, other than a Politico reporter, is going to take seriously the campaign’s spin.
If anything, the entire episode simply reminds Republican voters that Marco Rubio did team up with Sens. Schumer and Durbin to push amnesty legislation.
In the 1980 primary, Ronald Reagan’s primary challenges tried to argue that he had supported tax hikes in the past or had been pro-choice on abortion. These weren’t really true, but rather based on creative reading of past legislative debates. Voters didn’t buy it, no matter how clever the challengers, or their staffs, tried.
Rubio’s weird attempt to blunt his own record on amnesty by claiming that Cruz at one time supported something like it seems equally doomed to fail.
Pollster Frank Luntz reported that Ted Cruz scored the highest positive ratings during the Las Vegas debate. Cruz didn’t really have any of the memorable zingers or one-liners that political pundits dissect. What he did have was composure and confidence, at a time that much of the public is filled with anxiety.
That anxiety is fueled in no small part by a feeling that the political class in Washington is out of touch and almost inhabits an alternate universe. A universe where a campaign to be the leader of the free world leaks its internal strategy deliberations to Politico.
The public requires something a little more serious.