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Ted Cruz vs. Marco Rubio: after Trump, who gets to pick up the shards of the GOP?

They’re speaking at Trump’s convention. But they’re biding their time till their own.

Cruz Rubio
CNBC

Officially, a party’s national convention is about the present of the party: coronating and promoting that year’s presidential nominee.

Unofficially, it’s often something of a debutante ball for the stars of the party’s future. One rising star (Barack Obama in 2004, Chris Christie in 2012) gets an official “keynote”; other promising young members of Congress and governors get prominent primetime speeches on other nights.

But this week is Donald Trump’s convention, and Donald Trump gives no indication whatsoever of caring about the future of the Republican Party. Instead, sandwiched back to back on Wednesday — bookended, as if for maximum indignity, by a Trump child on one end and the head of a Trump family foundation on the other — are two of the men who, if Trump loses in November, will be tasked with picking up the pieces: Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.

Rubio and Cruz posed the most serious challenges to Trump’s ascent to the nomination. (Only John Kasich stayed in the race longer.) They’re the two highest-profile Trump rivals for the nomination speaking at his convention, and the two who’ve been most reluctant to support him after he sewed up the nomination.

Whether or not they officially endorse Trump during their speeches, or simply condone him tacitly by speaking at his convention, they’re already looking past November. Both of them are trying to shore up their own political futures — and that of a post-Trump GOP.

Ted Cruz is the early frontrunner for 2020. But he’s not out of place in Trump’s party in 2016.

Rubio is speaking by video because he’s “busy campaigning” in Florida, where he launched a last-minute run for Senate reelection. To put it another way, he’s speaking by video because a GOP in which Marco Rubio has a future is a GOP in which having appeared at Donald Trump’s convention is a liability.

Cruz, on the other hand, is in Cleveland in person — speaking to rallies of his continued faithful (some of whom were among the #NeverTrump delegates who as late as last week were attempting to deny Trump the nomination) and dispatching staffers to talk to political reporters, whose pieces run under headlines like “Senator Ted Cruz Still Has a Plan and He's Only 45 Years Old.”

Cruz is the (very, very, prematurely) early frontrunner for the party’s 2020 nomination if Trump loses. The Republican Party has a tradition of nominating the previous cycle’s second-place finisher: Ronald Reagan in 1980, John McCain in 2008, Mitt Romney in 2012. In the 2016 cycle, that honor went to Cruz.

Indeed, if it weren’t for the personal animus felt toward Ted Cruz by nearly anyone who’s ever worked with him in the United States Congress, Cruz might be the nominee today; he’s not only because elected Republicans refused to rally behind him, even after it was clear he was the only one who had a serious shot at beating Trump.

More importantly, unlike McCain and Romney, Cruz found electoral success among the party’s traditional conservative base. The states in which he beat Trump in the primary are states Republicans will actually win in the general. He is, even after Trump’s nomination, the de facto head of the conservative movement within the Republican Party.

Many of the leaders and pundits within the conservative movement are the most hardcore #NeverTrumpers in the party; they oppose Donald Trump because they believe he’s a betrayal of the party’s conservative soul, and they’re already looking ahead to reclaiming the party after he’s gone. And they like Cruz.

But looking at conservative voters, the split between Trump supporters and biding-their-time Cruz supporters isn’t nearly so clear.

Yes, in early primaries like the Iowa caucus and the South Carolina primary, Cruz won “very conservative” voters while Trump performed best among moderates. But as the primary season continued, more and more Republican voters were won over by Trumpism. “In the final seven races before party leaders crowned Trump the presumptive nominee,” Benjy Sarlin pointed out in an article on MSNBC.com, Trump “took every county save for six, while winning almost every demographic slice of GOP voters.”

Trump himself has little interest in pandering to conservative ideology. But his convention has shown a lot of interest in playing to the conservative movement’s particular fascinations. Benghazi, Fast and Furious, Saul Alinsky — someone tuning in to the RNC who wasn’t familiar with conservative media (directly or indirectly) might have a hard time following its primetime speakers.

Donald Trump’s party isn’t the Republican Party Ted Cruz would want. But they share many of the same voters — something Cruz understood instinctually, and which led him to ally himself with Trump during the early months of the 2016 campaign. (The two even co-headlined a rally against the US-Iran nuclear deal.) And Ted Cruz can move with some comfort, even power, in the party of Trump.

The question is whether that gives him (and the movement he represents) more power in a post-Trump Republican Party, or less of it.

For one thing, Trump’s voters, now that they’ve had a taste of true populism, might be less interested in Cruz’s doctrinaire conservatism (not to mention his dour campaigning style).

More importantly, though, after the 2016 cycle the voters may not get to choose.

Rubio: the candidate of the post-election “autopsy report” of the future

The Republican Party didn’t have an invisible primary in 2016. Or rather, it did, but nobody won: The donor and endorser class didn’t coalesce around a single “establishment” candidate (other than Jeb Bush, who could never translate his cash store into votes).

That doesn’t mean the invisible primary is dead. To the contrary, should Donald Trump lose, one of the first things that is going to happen is that Republican elected officials, donors, and strategists will sit down and think about what went wrong in 2016 and how to prevent it from happening again.

They might decide that one answer is to listen to the conservative movement less.

The Republican Party served the conservative movement fairly well in the pre-Trump years; it won victories with the “Tea Party” class of 2010 and a new generation of Senate conservatives in 2014. But many Republicans were uneasy or even antagonistic with that strain of Republicanism. And Cruz is its avatar.

It can be hard to notice, but some of the personal animus against Cruz is rooted in a belief that he would lead the party in a bad direction. As the New York Times’s Jonathan Martin reported in January, one reason Republican establishmentarians were so resistant to Cruz was that he was doctrinaire and uncompromising; they didn’t think a Republican Party led by a doctrinaire, uncompromising man would be successful. That’s not just Cruz’s character — it’s part of the character of the conservative Republicanism he represents.

Republicans who valued a steady hand on the tiller of governance (both traditionalist types and business interests) didn’t love the “Party of No” shutdown posturing; free-marketers didn’t like the anti-immigrant populism; neoconservatives didn’t love the budget hawkery and occasional anti-interventionism.

If those were the problems you identified with the Republican Party in 2014, you probably see Donald Trump not as a betrayal of the direction Republicans were going but the logical culmination of it. You probably think that preventing another Trump from rising up means retracing the party’s steps to an even earlier point and taking the other path.

You probably believe that, sooner or later, the GOP needs to become the party that Marco Rubio was fighting to lead all along.

Rubio’s vision of the GOP got a bad rap in this election, because Marco Rubio, it turns out, was a bad presidential candidate. But the factions of the party that supported him were stronger than he was, and once the 2016 election is over, they won’t need a candidate in front of them to reassert their control.

The pro-business arm of the party is unlikely to stay down after 2016 (and it’s not like the Democratic Party is hurrying to embrace them); they’re likely to mount a fight to make sure the Republicans stay the party of free trade and free enterprise. And while some of the most prominent neoconservatives in America have endorsed Hillary Clinton over Trump, Republicans as a whole are likely to remain the party of hawks.

At some point, too, Republicans who want to take a not-Trump path will have to reach out to nonwhite voters; Latinos, and particularly upwardly mobile Latinos, are the best bet. That will require sanding down the white resentment politics of the Trump supporters; it will also be easier if Republicans embrace “reformicon” policies to support middle-class households.

Republicans who believe in all of this are the ones who have the most to lose if Trump manages to win in November. If he loses, though, they’ll carry less of the blame than anyone else.

Maybe Marco Rubio won’t, in fact, be the leader of this new (or at least newly recalcitrant) Republican overclass. After all, he seemed like an awfully weak candidate this time. But if you think about what such a party’s 2020 presidential nominee might say when he accepts the nomination, it probably sounds a lot like what Marco Rubio, at his best, was saying this time.

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