As you might imagine, I’m delighted by any historical comparison that involves Marshall Kutuzov, and so I smiled to read Ross Douthat’s latest column, wondering whether Marco Rubio might be taking lessons from the Russian commander:
[W]hat is Rubio waiting for? What is his campaign thinking?
Most likely, some version of this: Over the last few weeks, as Rubio has mostly ignored Trump and mostly attacked Ted Cruz, Cruz’s numbers have gone downward in the region where he absolutely has to win, the Southland, and Rubio’s have steadily improved. Rubio was able to sneak past Cruz in South Carolina, he’s pulled ahead of him in new polls from Georgia and Oklahoma, and he’s even pulled within few points in a new poll out of Cruz’s home state of Texas (though two others show a larger Cruz edge). As a result, it is suddenly possible that on Super Tuesday Rubio will win more delegates across the South than Cruz, which would put the Texas senator’s campaign on life support.
Over that same period, meanwhile, Trump’s battleground numbers have mostly held steady, rather than spiking in the wake of his New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada wins. He’s at 29 percent in the Oklahoma poll, 28 percent in the Texas poll (where his unfavorable number is at 50 percent), and averaging 33 percent in the two most recent Georgia polls. These numbers leave him vulnerable to a last-minute Rubio surge (and in Iowa, South Carolina and Nevada, late deciders broke for Rubio), and even in victory they don’t promise a runaway lead in the overall delegate count after Super Tuesday.
So if you’re the Rubio campaign, looking at this landscape, you might say: Why change what we’re doing when we’re actually gaining ground? Why give Cruz a new lease on life by starting an ugly war with Trump just days before the S.E.C. primary might all but finish off the Texan’s chances? Why act panicked about Trump when he’s still so many hundreds and hundreds of delegates away from the magic 1,237? Why not do everything you can to get an effective two-man race before you face the slings and arrows of Trump’s outrageousness?
From their perspective, there’s no reason to play Churchill yet because Trump’s advance is less Hitler-in-France than Napoleon-in-Russia, and they’re like Marshal Kutuzov, the much-maligned Russian commander whose wait, wait, wait strategy was vindicated when winter overwhelmed the French. (With winter, in this case, being Trump’s relatively high unfavorable numbers relative to Rubio, his poor performance in general election polls, the ad campaigns that haven’t yet been unleashed against him but will be, etc.)
If this actually works, the Rubio brain trust is going to dine out on their own sang-froid for years.
Douthat goes on to say that he worries very much that it won’t work, because there isn’t time for it to work – if Trump dominates on March 1st, even if Rubio winds up beating Cruz in delegates, then Trump will also be in a strong position to win in the big winner-take-all states of Ohio, Illinois, and (gulp) Florida. And then he’ll be the nominee.
But Rubio hasn’t been Kutuzov, retreating into Russia and waiting for winter, because he never held Russia. Lots of people bought into the idea that he was the “stealth” front-runner, but he was never anywhere near to having a commanding position – not even in his home state. He started out far behind his own rhetorical positioning, and has consistently and badly underperformed his own campaign’s goals in states that are absolutely key to his victory. He is exceptionally poorly positioned for the states that follow Super Tuesday – and there’s no reason to believe that this position will improve if he doesn’t win any states on March 1st. It’s not just that he doesn’t have time to consolidate the non-Trump vote and win. It’s that he was never in a particularly good position to consolidate the non-Trump vote. After all, it’s not like he didn’t have months to consolidate that vote before Iowa.
Rubio’s boosters have seen him as the front-runner in waiting for so long that it may be hard for them to imagine, but it’s worth taking a brief trip through the looking glass to see Rubio for what he is: an insurgent candidate and, arguably, a spoiler.
Think about it. It was Rubio’s entry into the race more than anyone’s that made it difficult for Jeb Bush to consolidate his position as the establishment candidate, and that turned the “establishment lane” race into a personality contest rather than a substantive one. After all, Rubio and Bush disagreed about almost nothing; the entire rationale for Rubio’s candidacy once Bush was in the race was that Bush would be a lousy candidate (which he was), and that he would inherit his support when he faltered.
And, more than anyone, it’s Rubio now who is paving the way for a Trump victory. Ted Cruz looked like he had a real shot, a few weeks ago, to take a bunch of Southern states from Donald Trump. That looks less-likely now – substantially because Marco Rubio has been tearing him down. John Kasich, Trump’s strongest opponent in the Midwest, can’t get much traction because of the still-divided Republican field. But if Rubio had dropped out after New Hampshire, and endorsed Kasich . . .
Of course, that’s completely unfair. Rubio had every right to run – and folks like Jeb Bush have nobody but themselves to blame for their losses. But so is the suggestion that the rest of the field should clear the way for Rubio, the obvious best candidate, to be the nominee. Because, among other things, he isn’t obviously the best candidate. To my mind, Kasich is clearly the best candidate to face off against Clinton (as well as the one who would make the best President). And if all you truly care about is winning, I’m really not sure anymore that Trump isn’t a better choice than Rubio.
Why is Rubio not attacking Donald Trump? Because he doesn’t have a line of attack. Rubio isn’t quite as perfect a foil for Trump as Jeb Bush was – but he’s close. Anybody worried about Trump’s lack of relevant qualifications isn’t going to be reassured by Rubio. Rubio may be younger, but his platform is Bush-restorationist. Trump, the improv artist, is going to have a field day with Rubio, who never goes off script. And then, of course, there’s immigration. The lines of attack for Trump to use against Rubio are very, very obvious – and Rubio has already proven unable to respond effectively to those attacks when they came from Chris Christie and Ted Cruz.
Of course, Kutuzov also understood that a major reason to wait until winter was that Napoleon’s army would beat his if directly engaged. But the difference is that Rubio won’t have the option of never engaging.
Apart from likability and electability (not the electorate’s favorite characteristics this year), Rubio’s only real line of attack against Trump is that he, Rubio, believes the things a Republican is supposed to believe, while Trump is a heretic. Rubio, more than any other candidate in the field, is running on that old time religion, the Bush-era verities. While Cruz and Carson are at least as ostentatious in their religiosity, Rubio is the true faith-based candidate. This is most obvious in foreign policy, where a keen memory for detail can’t hide the fact that his understanding of the world is entirely derived from ideological first principles, but’s it’s true more generally.
Unfortunately, he’s a faith-based candidate who can only persuade those who still count themselves believers. And Trump is demonstrating daily how much fewer of those there are than the conservative movement thought.