Politics is more about organization than raw enthusiasm. Donald Trump was beaten last night by Ted Cruz’s organization in Iowa—and more significantly, they will both be beaten by Marco Rubio’s organization nationally. That’s because Rubio’s organization is not only his campaign but the Republican establishment and conservative movement as well. He can even count on the organized power of the mainstream media aiding him, for while the old media may dislike Republicans in general, they particularly loathe right-wing populist Republicans like Cruz and Trump.
A divided right is the classic set-up for an establishment Republican’s nomination. Cruz and Trump draw upon the same base of voters. Rubio, it’s true, has establishment rivals to finish off in New Hampshire—Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and John Kasich. But Rubio has been within a few points of Bush and Kasich in recent New Hampshire polls, and after Iowa it’s not hard to imagine him gaining three or four points, probably more, over the next week. Cruz, who hasn’t been far ahead of the moderates in the Granite State, might also gain a few points, but those will most likely come at the expense of Trump, who to be sure has plenty of margin to spare. Although it’s possible that Trump and Cruz will finish first and second in New Hampshire by splitting a big right-wing turnout, Rubio seems to have a good shot at placing second by swiftly becoming the establishment’s unity candidate.
Jeb Bush may hate his fellow Floridian, but Bush has a family—a political dynasty—to think about. The whole family’s political fortunes depend on Republicans, and establishment Republicans at that, winning again. Does Jeb want to be the Bush who turned his party over to Trump or Cruz (hardly beloved by his fellow Texan George W.) and their uncouth supporters, only to lose in November? The family’s rich and influential friends know the score, and they’re on the phone with Jeb right now telling him to get out. His son, George P., will do just fine in a Rubio administration, and who knows, maybe Jeb himself can be ambassador to Mexico.
The story of how Rubio won the establishment’s civil war is the story of just how adroit the neoconservative “deciders” really are. Neoconservatives compounded the George W. Bush administration’s Iraq folly, but because Bush was the brand name attached to the disastrous policies of 2001-2009, the Bush family suffered the consequences far more than did the obscure policy hacks and think-tank propagandists (and their billionaire backers) who egged the administration’s warhawks on. The neoconservatives have turned against the Bush family in part because it’s damaged goods, in part because the Bushes had started to catch on: George W. began to reconnect with foreign-policy realists in his second term, and while Jeb may count Paul Wolfowitz among his advisers, he also consorts with James Baker, anathema to the neocons.
Heading into 2016, neoconservative foreign policy needed a new, untainted brand and a less experienced, more malleable candidate—someone who wouldn’t be as wary as an old Bush might be. In Marco Rubio, everything was ready-made. The fact that Rubio’s brand isn’t foreign-policy failure—the legacy the Bushes must live with—but rather that of a fresh-faced Hispanic, a new and different kind of Republican, meant that the media and public would not guess that what they were in store for was more of what was worst in the George W. Bush administration. As if to taunt the forgetful, the Rubio campaign adopted as its slogan “A New American Century”—counting on no columnist or newscaster to remember the name of the defunct Kristol-Kagan invasion factory. Rubio has been similarly blunt in his hawkish statements throughout the Republican debates.
Conservative realists as well as libertarians are apt to be dismayed by Rand Paul’s fifth-place finish in Iowa, ahead of Bush by roughly two points but behind Ben Carson by nearly five. Ron Paul had finished third in 2012, with 21 percent of the vote compared to his son’s 4.5 percent this year. But anything short of the nomination is only worthwhile as a learning experience and as an opportunity for further organization, and in that regard Paul’s well-wishers need not be discouraged. Though the Republican Party has reverted to a hawkish disposition since 2013, there is still a better-organized counter-neocon faction in the party today than there was in 2003, when the Iraq War began, or even 2006, when Republicans paid the political price for the war. And it’s notable that the top finishers in Iowa, Trump and Cruz, while being far from realists or libertarians, are almost equally far from being neoconservatives. The party’s foreign-policy attitudes are more diverse today than they were even in 2012.
Both libertarians and conservative realists got carried away by their own hopes in the five easy years between 2006 and 2013, when the domestic political climate and world events alike took a favorable turn for realism and made things maximally difficult for neoconservatives and hawks. Today things are hard for everyone—though the hawks and neoconservatives are fortunate in having an avatar like Rubio, whose youth, looks, and race make even those who should know better yearn to give him the benefit of the doubt.
The danger is that libertarians and traditional conservatives will learn the wrong lesson now: the problem is not exactly that Rand Paul was not more like Ron Paul in his unbending libertarianism or more like Trump in his rabble-stiring populism. To be sure, Rand came off as sometimes tentative and embarrassed about his principles, and in trying to appeal to the hawkish evangelical right he only alienated his base while failing to win much new support. But while his father did better in 2012 and Trump did better still this year, neither of them had what it takes to actually win. The insurgent right is extraordinarily bad at politics and consistently mistakes raw enthusiasm for effective electoral power. Ron Paul couldn’t leverage his third-place Iowa finish in 2012 the way Rubio’s allies are set to capitalize on his third-place finish this year because the extra-political as well as political organization that Rubio commands dwarfs anything that the libertarian or populist right possesses, and the neoconservatives have been much more effective at devising narratives and message-frameworks that the mainstream media and the business class can support. Trump might get second place, Ron Paul might get third, yet both remain fringe figures to the opinion-forming classes.
Rather than face this fact, too many true believers on the right prefer to retreat into fantasy—indulging in dreams of third parties or sudden popular uprisings or the triumph of disembodied ideas over mere flesh-and-blood politics. Yet better, more far-sighted organization in politics and the media is the only way to advance worldly change. The neoconservatives have understood this better than anyone.
And so the neoconservatives have won the civil war for the Republican establishment, beating the semi-neocon Bushes and elevating their preferred candidate, Marco Rubio, to the role of establishment savior. The unified neoconservative-establishment bloc now waits for Trump and Cruz to bleed each other dry, before Rubio finishes off whoever remains—probably Cruz. Should all proceed according to plan, the fresh-faced establishment Republican champion then goes to face the haggard old champion of the Democratic establishment, Hillary Clinton, in November. Whoever wins, the cause of peace and limited government loses. Yet even then there will come a backlash, as always before, and next time perhaps an opposition will be better prepared.