Via the Corner, here’s what it means to be an establishment/tea party “hybrid” candidate for 2016. After spending three weeks quietly backing Cruz’s “defund” strategy in order to try to rebuild cred with conservatives, Rubio now has to turn around and endorse the one guy in Congress more than any other whom conservatives see as having sold out the defunders. Makes me wonder if that’s a net gain or a net loss for him with the target audience. Does it matter more to righties that he supported Cruz this month or that he’s supporting McConnell next year? Right now, probably the latter. Two years from now, the former.
My guess is that Rubio will take much more of a beating on the right for his endorsement of McConnell than Rand Paul will take for his, even though Paul’s support is more important to McConnell’s chances of winning. Unlike Rubio, Paul’s backing is more than just rhetorical, too: Remember, Jesse Benton, who managed Ron Paul’s 2012 campaign and will surely play a key part in the Rand 2016 operation, is now managing McConnell’s campaign (albeit while “holding his nose”). That’s a present from Paulworld to a major establishment figure who’s at serious risk of being unseated in a primary in Kentucky otherwise. Rubio’s endorsement might not matter, but if Rand had come out hard for McConnell’s opponent, Matt Bevin — who’s been endorsed by Jim DeMint’s Senate Conservatives Fund — that could have seriously imperiled McConnell. Instead, Paul’s playing ball — and yet Rubio’s likely to hear more grassroots grumbling over this clip than Paul has so far. Why is that?
The obvious answer is that Rubio took the lead on amnesty and Paul didn’t, but (a) that hasn’t produced any damaging legislation — so far — and (b) Paul isn’t implacably opposed to comprehensive reform himself. Meanwhile, not only has Paul given a major boost to McConnell in Kentucky, he was quick out of the gate to back Sen. Mike Enzi over tea-party favorite Liz Cheney in Wyoming at a moment when she was trying to gain traction among the grassroots. If you’re all about replacing Beltway dinosaurs with younger conservative candidates, Paul’s certainly done more to thwart that effort so far than Rubio has. The real reason he gets more of a pass on this stuff than Rubio, I think, is that his dad’s legacy gives him an opportunity to triangulate that Rubio lacks. When Rubio gets elected in Florida as the conservative choice and then makes nice with Beltway figures, he’s “selling out”; when Paul does the same thing, he’s simply proving to a lot of mainstream righties that he’s not as radical as his old man. That’s the whole point of lending Benton to the McConnell campaign, I think. When establishmentarians look at the 2016 field and wonder if Rand Paul is too fringey to trust with power, he can point to his efforts for Mitch the Knife (and Enzi) as proof that he’s willing to work with the dinosaurs to their mutual benefit. And on the flip side, grassroots righties who’d otherwise be annoyed by Paul working with McConnell can say, “Well, he’s only doing that for political reasons, not because he really supports McConnell.” Perceptions of Ron Paul have created some space for Rand.