As reflected in the South Carolina Republican debate last weekend and the campaigning that has gone on since then, things have gotten very heated in the presidential primary race, with lots of harsh rhetoric being exchanged among the candidates. I've written before that I think it is generally counterproductive for Republicans to attack each other, and, not to steal John Kasich’s thunder, I think it would be far better if they would cut this out, focus on the plans and qualities they want to promote to the voters, and save the tough criticisms for the Democrats (including the one posing as a Republican and leading the GOP field.) More specifically, I’ve become increasingly concerned about the way the rivalry between Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio has been developing. I’m obviously not a political advisor to these two senators, so I can’t tell them why some of the things taking place bother me so much or why I wish the growing negativity would stop, and I’ll just have to settle for expressing those thoughts here.
Let me start by saying that I think both Cruz and Rubio are strong conservative candidates, and I would expect either one to do a fine job if elected president. They do, of course, differ on certain policy issues, as well as in their approaches to communicating with people and trying to accomplish things. On substance, I would weigh the two pretty evenly, as I rather prefer Cruz’ position on immigration but tend to agree more with Rubio on national security and defense matters. As for style, I appreciate Ted Cruz’ well-thought out statements and willingness to take tough stances when necessary, but Marco Rubio is also capable of making compelling arguments for his views and perhaps seeks more to also reach those not already on his (and conservatives’) side. Over the course of this campaign, I have personally found Senator Rubio’s message and candidacy more appealing, but I definitely think that Senator Cruz is a very good choice as well. I could enthusiastically support either should he become the nominee, and you can take all of these things into account when considering what follows.
There has certainly been no shortage of inter-party criticism throughout the campaign season, but things really seem to have escalated now that voting has actually begun. I’d like to focus mainly on a few things that happened leading up to the South Carolina debate, during that event, and in the days since then, largely related to some of the testy exchanges that unfortunately took place between Senators Rubio and Cruz.
Ted Cruz has for some time been hitting Rubio for his immigration record and positions, but in the days prior to the debate, he also criticized Rubio regarding social issues, suggesting that he had not been a strong enough proponent of traditional marriage and of defunding Planned Parenthood -- charges that upset Rubio and, in the latter case, prompted a statement from the National Right to Life Committee calling the claim misleading and defending Rubio’s voting record on the issue. On stage last Saturday,Ted Cruz was asked a question regarding possible deportations during his potential administration. Rather than answer it, he chose instead to turn the conversation once again to the unsuccessful comprehensive immigration reform bill for which Rubio had worked a few years ago, his (Cruz’) own efforts to stop that legislation, and other aspects of Rubio’s positions and history with immigration, including comments he said Rubio had made on Spanish-language television about Barack Obama’s immigration-related executive orders.
To me, with the exception of stepping in to counter some of Donald Trump’s attacks on George W. Bush, Rubio had seemed perfectly willing on Saturday to stick to his own answers without engaging in verbal combat with the others. Naturally, though, when singled out for criticism, he responded, quipping that he didn’t know how Cruz would know what he’d said on Univision, since Cruz doesn’t speak Spanish; listing some shifts in Cruz’ own immigration statements from prior years to now; and then asserting that Cruz has been resorting to telling lies and making things up in his campaign, including about Ben Carson in Iowa and about Rubio’s record. Oh, gosh... My heart sinks when I hear this sort of bickering among those I see as the “good guys,” and I’ll share a few thoughts about both sides.
In a way, I think that the issues I’ve had with Ted Cruz during this race largely stem from one central disagreement, but it’s important because it involves one of the main themes of the senator’s campaign. Cruz contends that people should back his candidacy because he is the strongest (or even the only) conservative in the race and tends to lump everyone else in as part of the “Washington cartel” that acts against the wishes of the grassroots members of the movement. As someone who actually believes that the Republican field that began vying for this nomination contained many good, conservative candidates deserving of respect and support, Cruz’ characterization of the group did not sit well with me. I didn’t particularly appreciate all of his efforts to point out alleged “betrayals” of conservatism by various of his opponents, especially when, for months, he basically gave a pass to the least conservative person in the race, Donald Trump. I’m glad that he eventually began discussing the problems with Trump’s track record and lack of conservatism, but I can’t help thinking that Cruz contributed to the viability of Trump’s campaign by seeming to ally with this “outsider” -- after all, if the very conservative Cruz thinks that Trump is “great,” he must be worthy of consideration for the Republican nomination, right?
I think that Rand Paul and Marco Rubio had a point when they said that Ted Cruz wants to inaccurately portray himself as the only conservative or the only one having a perfect record on various issues. No candidate is perfect, so Senator Cruz shouldn’t feel he needs to convince people that he is. He should, however, admit it if he’s changed his mind about something and be prepared to explain why. When discussing immigration, I think it might be wise for Senator Cruz to focus on the current positions offered by all of the candidates (which would still place him more in line with the views of pro-enforcement/anti-amnesty voters) rather than bringing up the bill before Congress back in 2013. I understand that Senator Rubio’s role in that legislation is a fault against him for many Republicans, so extra references to it may hurt him, but some of the things Senator Cruz said at the time don’t fit with what he’s saying now, either, and I don’t think drawing attention to that benefits him.
To the broader point of identifying “true” conservatives, sometimes there may not really be a definitive conservative position on a certain issue right now. How much information should the NSA be able to collect about people in America? Should the need for a strong military mean that we increase defense spending dramatically even with our large debt problems? There are legitimate differences of opinion among conservatives about some things, so any judgments about whether a candidate is or is not a conservative needs to take into account his or her entire record and views on all of the issues. Often, though, Senator Cruz seems to equate disagreement with his position on an issue, or even a tactic, as non-conservatism or weakness. In general, this again may not play well with voters open to multiple candidates, but it certainly seems to be an overreach in some cases.
For example, as mentioned above, Senator Cruz chose to criticize Marco Rubio over the effort to defund Planned Parenthood. Now, just reading the headline referring to this prompted a very puzzled response from me. Of all of the issues about which a conservative might choose to fault Senator Rubio, right to life matters seem probably the most bizarre selection. Rubio has been quite outspoken about his pro-life convictions and considerable time had just been spent at the previous week’s debate discussing whether his views in this area are actually too extreme. (And, I’d also note that Senator Cruz did not jump into that nationally-televised conversation to volunteer that he shared the same “extremism.”) Still, even though Rubio has voted multiple times to defund Planned Parenthood, Cruz accused Rubio of not being willing to “stand and fight” and of not wanting to use Congressional authority to remove funding from the organization. Apparently, Cruz’ was specifically criticizing Rubio for not being on board with Cruz’ preferred strategy (which might have led to a government shutdown over a budget fight) for achieving that aim, but it would seem people not hearing all the details might well be given the impression that Rubio did not want to stop giving taxpayer money to Planned Parenthood. It’s not surprising that Rubio would find this particular line of attack especially objectionable, since it concerns something about which he and many other conservatives care deeply. I may be missing something, but I can’t see how it can help anyone (other than liberals) for pro-life politicians to attack each other, especially concerning issues about which they essentially agree on the substance.
Senator Cruz often says that he will not engage in personal attacks and name calling, and I give him credit for that, especially in comparison to a certain billionaire opponent for whom insults are a leading campaign characteristic. However, while Cruz thankfully doesn’t go around calling people ugly, stupid losers or other things unfit for repetition, I’m not so sure that calling someone only a “campaign conservative,” as a Cruz e-mail recently described Rubio, or labeling people as part of a hostile cartel in Washington isn’t name calling of a sort itself, although of a much more polite and reasonable variety.
Maybe because I have higher hopes for my preferred candidate, I was quite troubled by a couple of the things Marco Rubio said in the debate exchange with Ted Cruz. The not speaking Spanish comment struck me as a bit of a cheap shot. Especially because both senators, as conservatives, are sometimes accused by those on the left of not being “really Hispanic,” I’d think that Rubio would want to avoid any remarks that could be construed as playing into that narrative, even if he wasn’t deliberately making that suggestion himself. I also found the Ben Carson Iowa reference unfortunate. Do we really know enough to just accept as fact that something deliberately wrong was done to Dr. Carson and that Ted Cruz ordered or even knew about it?
Now, I may just be too squeamish or “PC” about this next point, but I was uncomfortable with Rubio’s use of the term “lies” to characterize what Cruz has been saying about Rubio’s record and other matters. I suppose some people might say that it’s just a given that all politicians are “liars,” but it strikes me as a very serious charge for one candidate to level at another -- one that can call a person’s character and fitness for office into question and should not be made lightly. Plus, while I certainly haven’t heard or seen everything the candidates have said about each other, for the most part, I think that Senator Cruz tends to choose his words very carefully to avoid saying things that are factually false, even if the conclusions he’s suggesting or drawing from them may be highly debatable. That’s not ideal, of course, but it does seem to be a pretty common tactic in politics (and courtrooms, presumably), and I’m not sure how many candidates completely refrain from employing it in some way. I’m afraid it’s not unusual to mention some detail in a way that attempts to paint an opponent in the worst possible light, but sometimes I think trying too hard to do this may just distract from a basic point a politician could have made more easily. When Senator Cruz stated in a rather ominous tone that Marco Rubio had said in a Spanish interview that he wouldn’t eliminate Obma’s executive order for deferred action on certain immigrants on his first day in office, the implication seemed to be that Rubio was trying to hide his real positions on immigration from the majority of the public by saying them in a language not everyone would understand or that he was saying one thing in English and another in Spanish, with the possible added suggestion that he wouldn’t get rid of the order at all. Now, my memory may be failing me, but I recall seeing an interview a couple of months ago on one of the Sunday talk shows in which Senator Rubio said that Obama’s action regarding people brought to the US as children couldn’t be a permanent policy or go on indefinitely, which seemed to indicate that he would reverse the action sometime, but probably not immediately (although he said something different a couple of days ago, which is another issue.) There was no real need to go off into a tangent about Spanish language TV, as any criticisms of Rubio’s stance could have been made just as well based on what he’d said in English, but it doesn’t seem that Cruz actually said anything untrue.
So, I would have been much more at ease if Senator Rubio would have instead said that Senator Cruz was “misrepresenting” or “distorting” his record, etc., and I hoped he’d back off of the “lying” accusation. Alas, on Sunday, he used it again during appearances on multiple talk shows, and a few days later his campaign sent out an e-mail with the subject line: “Ted Cruz is a liar,’ which also referenced Trump’s similar comments about Cruz. (Later in the week, Rubio did seem more apt to use the somewhat less harsh phrase “making things up” in reference to Cruz.) I’m sorry, but I have to say that, if anyone in this campaign clearly deserves to be called a liar, it’s Mr. Trump, who, along with fabricating countless tales about himself and others, frequently says something in an interview or a debate, even with millions of people watching, and then insists (sometimes even just the next day) that he did not. Considering this, I certainly wouldn’t cite Trump’s opinion when questioning anyone else’s veracity, and I can’t really blame Cruz for negatively linking Rubio with Trump in regard to their criticisms of him this week. I can fault Cruz for some other things, though -- such as not making sure his campaign doesn’t utilize photocopied pictures of Rubio with President Obama when he’s already being accused of dishonest political tactics. Instances like that make it more reasonable for people to raise questions about a candidate’s truthfulness and tougher each time to make the case that he should be given the benefit of the doubt. Still, I think that Rubio and others shouldn’t be too quick to assume that every allegation made against Cruz is true or to attribute any "trick" aimed at voters and candidates to him. Anyone could post a false Facebook page, and I’d need quite a bit of solid evidence before believing anything Trump claims about robocalls or anything else, and I think that Senator Cruz may well not have deserved all of the criticism he's received in this area.
All of this being said, I completely agree with Senator Rubio when he says that he has to respond and attempt to correct the record when others say things about him that he believes are false. I also am inclined to believe him when he says that he’d prefer to spend his time talking about his own plans and vision and to run a positive campaign. In addition, it seems to me that Rubio’s appeal as a candidate is much stronger when he is being optimistic and forward-looking and sharing good humor, so staying away from negativity as much as possible would probably help him politically, as well. With these things in mind, I would just suggest that he might be a bit more cautious when he does answer criticism or issue his own, lest he unduly contribute to a destructive campaign climate.
Now that Donald Trump depressingly has another big victory on his record from South Carolina, this time including winning even among Evangelical voters (about whom I can only shake my head in baffled dismay), it seems even more likely that it may be very difficult to stop him from winning the nomination. Also, with Jeb Bush making a graceful exit from the race, who will do his share of challenging Trump during the next debates? Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio seem to be the remaining candidates who might have enough support to have some chance of overcoming Trump, but I’m afraid the chance may be slim, especially if they wind up destroying each other in an effort to become the competitor left to face Trump one on one. Even if such a scenario were to come to pass, I don’t see it ending well, as, by the time the two-person race solidified, Trump would have collected who knows how many delegates and the “surviving” opponent would be weakened by the previous battles. Plus, supporters of the candidate who did not last in the contest might not be particularly enthused about voting for his bitter rival in the remaining primaries. So, with the South Carolina primary and it’s reputation for brutal campaigns behind us, is it too much to hope that perhaps we can have a less negative and more uplifting portion of the race ahead? It would be nice if, going forward, the remaining candidates in the race would focus on sharing their ideas and positions on the issues and stressing the importance of electing a solid conservative president to lead our country. I would also suggest a concerted effort to, truthfully and without stooping to Trump’s level of insulting discourse, point out the problems and constant changes in Donald Trump’s statements and record, especially those things that are inconsistent with the view many have of him as a “straight talker” who “can’t be bought” and will shake up the deal-making culture in Washington. Perhaps Senator Cruz can construct a prosecutorial case against Trump’s fitness for the presidency and present it in a series of ads or in some other venue. Can we have at least somewhat of a truce between Senators Cruz and Rubio? Do they agree with those of us who feel it is imperative Donald Trump not be the nominee put forth to represent the Republican Party and conservatism in the general election, and are they willing to potentially put the larger good above their own individual interests and ambitions? As someone who doesn’t think all political officeholders are hopelessly corrupt evildoers (presumably a big reason I’m not in Trump’s camp), I’m hoping (but not holding my breath) that there is a chance the answers to these questions could possibly be “yes” and that the remaining competitors for the Republican presidential nomination will endeavor to show us that they can be good candidates, good conservatives, and good people all at the same time.