In the latest presidential polling, three senators are falling fast. While not predictive of the future, it does tell us what Republicans think of these and other candidates. Why are Sens. Rand Paul (Ky.), Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Ted Cruz (Tex.) doing so poorly? Rand Paul reached 15 percent to 20 percent in a variety of polls; now he’s in single digits. Cruz, once at 20 percent, has plummeted to 5 percent in a recent MSNBC poll. Rubio once surpassed 20 percent but now is at about 7 percent.
Some of the explanation relates to the difficulty all senators, especially those in the minority, have when running for the presidency. It is hard to stay in the news unless you are pulling some dramatic stunt. You can announce a policy proposal, but you’ll have a difficult time getting it on the leadership’s radar and making any legislative progress. You primarily talk for a living, so speeches are overshadowed by events and others’ accomplishments.
Also, there is a decided shift in sentiment since the shutdown, the defeat of Virginia tea party gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli and passage of the budget. It is almost as if Republicans have looked over the edge to see the political abyss that awaits them if they take direction from far-right groups, talk-show hosts and the shutdown squad. The Republican Governors Association is running ads against Washington, D.C., chaos. The Chamber of Commerce and other mainstream business groups have woken up and are engaging in primary politics. And there is a growing, critical mass of viable Senate Republican contenders who project a can-do type of conservatism rather than reflexive opposition to compromise. In other words, the tea party is getting battered and Rubio, Paul and Cruz are bloodied.
That said, each of these figures faces unique challenges. Rubio has baffled former supporters with a schizophrenic mix of high-minded national security policies and low-brow shutdown antics. His persona is no longer that of a rising star but of a freshman senator in over his head, not steering his own course but serving up what he thinks segments of the base want to hear.
Cruz suffered most from the shutdown, which he led. It is fair to say his hyper-combative, hostile relationship with colleagues and his failure to present a positive agenda (as have Rubio, Sen. Mike Lee of Utah and Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin) have not worn well.
All three are freshmen, who like Barack Obama, barely found the members’ elevator before their naked ambition kicked in and the posturing started for a presidential run. Did they do something to qualify themselves for this office? Like Obama, they are big talkers who have big deficits in knowledge and executive experience.
None of these maladies is fatal, at least at this stage in the game. But, especially with regard to Paul and Cruz, the conservative media remain infatuated with these senators’ harsh rhetoric and take no-prisoners-mentality, and the senators fail to understand that what they saw as unflinching others saw as unappealing. Again, the right-wing echo chamber is wrong, speaking only for itself and not for the great mass of GOP voters.
Cruz, Paul and Rubio aren’t permanently down and out. Their newness on the national stage doesn’t allow us to predict how they might fashion successful second and third acts. Their failures contrast with the recent success of Ryan, who seems to be everywhere — making deals on the budget, trying to forge immigration reform, talking about upward mobility and using his conservative credentials in a positive way. True, his personality, background and years of experience are different from Cruz, Paul and Rubio. But it is his vision of government as a problem-solver that sets him apart and makes him more appealing to more voters over the long haul. Conservative media and think tanks are debating societies, to a large extent, about ideology; politics is about winning majorities and enacting an agenda. Cruz and Paul seem better suited to the former environment (where unflinching rhetoric can thrive), but they are challenged when facing voters who, even in the GOP primaries, want government to address their daily lives.
Timing in politics, like in life, is everything. If a dress designer offers styles that went out of fashion last year, he’ll bomb. Likewise, a presidential aspirant whose tone and vision is ill-suited to the current zeitgeist isn’t going to go very far.