If 2012 was the year of the “clown car,” the 2016 GOP presidential primary will be Reservoir Dogs.
And the dogs have already started circling, as two savvy yet vicious politicians recognize the Tea Party is only big enough for one filibusterer.
For the past few years, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul pretended to be friends and kept their divisions mostly private. Cruz opportunistically joined Paul’s drone filibuster. When Paul — like most of America — recognized that a government shutdown would only help Cruz, he leaked his opposition yet stood with the junior Senator from Texas in public.
But recognizing that Senator Rand Paul was about to win the CPAC Straw Poll for the second year in a row, Ted Cruz began trumpeting a subtle attack on Paul he first made to donors last year designed to exploit what could the Kentucky’s senator’s biggest weakness.
“On one side you have the views of John McCain. The other end of the spectrum, you have the views of Rand Paul,” he said. “Now, with respect, my views are very much the views of Ronald Reagan, which I would suggest is a third point on the triangle.”
By pushing Paul to left and humbly exalting how strong the Reagan is in him, Cruz reminds Republican donors of Paul’s father’s non-interventionist foreign policy, which is far more developed and well known than Rand’s nascent attempt to frame himself as a proponent of a sort of non-aggressive soft power, though it’s really just cranky isolationism clouded by some Republican rhetoric.
Paul’s popularity comes entirely from his ability to get Republicans to side with him on libertarian issues they wouldn’t normally embrace because they presented new avenues to attack President Obama. So when the debate becomes forward looking without Obama to bash, Paul will be vulnerable.
But Rand Paul is a gifted right-wing politician bent on the belief that he can expand the appeal of the party while edging Cruz out to win the Tea Partiers and evangelicals who make up about half of GOP primary voters.
On Monday, Paul went on the attack. He published an op-ed in Time where he said, “I wouldn’t let Vladimir Putin get away with it” and simultaneously went into the right-wing sewer of Breitbart to point out something Republicans rarely mention — President Reagan retreated from Lebanon after a bomb killed 241 Marines.
This broadens a Republican foreign policy debate that’s been caught up in a miasma of John McCain listing countries he’d like to invade and Mitt Romney spouting nonsensical boasts about wanting to double the size of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp.
This will force Cruz to retaliate. And as anyone knows, Cruz’s attacks are not dependent on reality or logic. He’s spent the last year arguing that the only thing that keeps Obamacare from being repealed are weak Republican leaders, knowing that’s blatantly false.
One thing should be clear: Ted Cruz doesn’t lie because he’s dumb. He lies because he’s brilliant.
Cruz knows that Republicans pick their heroes almost exclusively based on how easily they infuriate Democrats, and he’s as gifted at the art of nurturing grievance as the women who helped make him — Sarah Palin.
Rand Paul aims to build a Republican coalition unlike any that has ever existed. He believes he can bring young people to the Republican Party with a few issues like drug and prison reform while selling evangelicals in a way his father never did using issues like the “worldwide war on Christianity.”
Both men ultimately agree on most everything.
They want to cut government so that it’s small enough to justify the huge tax cuts they imagine. (Though Ted Cruz has wisely not put out a plan explaining that he would immediately privatize and raise the retirement ages for Medicare and Social Security, as Rand Paul has). Both men are with the less than 20 percent of America who believe abortion should be illegal, even in cases of rape and incest.
Defense is the one issue where there is a real fissure between Cruz and Paul and it’s the most combustible issue there is, with shrill screams of “weak” or “warmonger” inevitable. The candidates won’t have to make these charges themselves. As we learned from 2012, the finest work will be done by Super PACs.
Rand Paul and Ted Cruz are in the Senate because of their talent at attacking Republicans. Now that they’ve admitted that they need to destroy each other, GOP politics is about to become interesting again.
In 2012, Newt Gingrich attacked Mitt Romney for being a vulture capitalist. In 2016, we may get Rand Paul calling out his party’s neoconservatism.
This is how Republicans help Democrats win.
[Image by @jonkarl via Twitter]