We’re about three weeks into this Rubio broadside against Cruz on natsec and I’m still not sure what the point is.

Speaking with reporters before a town hall here, Texas’ junior senator repeatedly pushed back on a TV ad airing in Iowa that suggests Cruz “voted to weaken America’s ability to identify and hunt down terrorists.” The spot was produced by an outside group whose head supports Rubio, the Florida senator vying with Cruz for the GOP presidential nomination…

The anti-Cruz ad, which focuses on his vote in favor of the USA Freedom Act in June, is an affront to people like [USA Freedom Act co-sponsor Rep. Jim] Bridenstine, Cruz said, calling the congressman a veteran and war hero. 

“The Rubio attack ad is impugning his patriotism,” Cruz told reporters. “It’s suggesting that conservatives like [Utah Republican U.S. Sen.] Mike Lee, like me, like the NRA, somehow acted to undermine our national security. That’s about as ridiculous a proposition as anyone can imagine.”…

“I imagine Sen. Rubio’s PAC is trying to respond to the criticism that is receiving that he was not willing to protect the Fourth Amendment privacy rights of law-abiding citizens, and they are attempting to do so by attacking those of us who were,” Cruz said. 

I know — technically he’s defending Bridenstine’s patriotism, not his own, but the point is clear enough. I’ve heard various explanations for why Rubio is pursuing this line of attack, the most common of which is that he wants to change the subject from immigration. Okay, but if this is their best shot against Cruz to put him on defense when he’s hitting Rubio on the hottest hot-button issue of the primaries then the smart money’s on Cruz for the nomination. Even on a day when the NSA is driving the news cycle, asking Republican voters to form a candidate preference based on surveillance policy would be asking a lot. Asking them to do so when Trump is out there pounding the podium about amnesty is asking the impossible. If this were a small part of a broader-based attack on Cruz for foreign policy weakness, a la the sort of playbook Rubio would run against Rand Paul if Paul was a top contender, that would be one thing. As it is, it’s going to be some trick to convince Republicans that Cruz is a weird dovish outlier in supporting a bill that got supermajority support in both chambers of Congress when those chambers are dominated by Republicans. If anything, it’s Rubio who’s the outlier: Do you want a president who’s so hawkish on NSA data mining that he’d freak out about a modest reform bill supported by most of the elected federal representatives of his own (already very hawkish) party?

Matt Lewis, a loud and proud Rubio fan, can’t figure this out either. If anything, says Lewis, Cruz’s vote for the USA Freedom Act is proof that he can compromise with Democrats on major bills, contrary to public perceptions. Not only will Cruz defend his vote as a (small) concession to civil liberties, he’ll point to it as proof that he’s not the mindless obstructionist the left is forever claiming he is:

First, USA Freedom was about domestic wiretaps, so using the Paris attacks as a catalyst requires an understanding that it wouldn’t have prevented what happened in Paris. Second, USA freedom did not stop the practice of obtaining information; the government must now obtain a warrant—and the records are kept by the phone companies as part of their normal business practices.

Third, it’s important to note that USA Freedom was compromise legislation—and that, in fact, one could reasonably argue that Cruz’s efforts helped keep us safe by preventing the complete repeal of the Patriot Act’s provisions.

As US News & World Report noted last year, “There [were] not enough votes in the House to reauthorize the Patriot Act without amendments limiting its authority, according to statements from House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., and Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., who is the Freedom Act’s co-author.”

Rubio was prepared to let the Patriot Act lapse entirely in hopes that that would scare Congress into reauthorizing it lock, stock, and barrel. Cruz took half a loaf (or really, nine-tenths of a loaf) by reauthorizing everything except a few parts that forced the NSA to jump through extra procedural hurdles in accessing domestic phone records data for a terrorism investigation. Rubio’s taking a maximalist position on surveillance above and beyond what even most members of his own party insisted upon and yet Cruz is the unreasonable one?

He’s better off arguing that Cruz is unelectable, a judgment apparently shared by many of their colleagues in the Senate. And he will make that argument, in due time.